Thomas Delany Jr. Staff Photographer. Judy Masterson, resporter for The News Sun. 7/12/06
Updated: February 23, 2011 2:13AM
One of the best speeches I’ve ever read was delivered 100 years ago by labor activist Rose Schneiderman, in the wake of the infamous Triangle Waist Co. fire in New York City. The last two lines of the short but fiery address read: “I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.”
The factory blaze killed 146 — mostly immigrant women and teen girls — many of whom fell to their deaths from the ninth floor of the building after the collapse of the only accessible fire escape. Exit doors had been locked. There were no sprinklers.
Schneiderman had organized strikes at the factory even before the fire, which broke out on March 25, 1911. During the memorial gathering that followed, she vented her fury on those who couldn’t be bothered to care about the paltry wages — some earned $7 for 84 hours a week — and dangerous working conditions endured by so many.
“I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship,” Schneiderman told a huge crowd “We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting. This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city. Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred. There are so many of us for one job it matters little if 143 are burned to death.”
The factory owners were found not guilty of manslaughter. But the apathetic public, the buyers of Triangle’s ready-made blouses, finally took notice of the injustices behind the strikes and protests being led at the time by Schneiderman and the fledgling International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union.
Outrage over the deaths at Triangle helped to fuel unprecedented new labor laws in the state of New York that improved working conditions and wages for the working classes and that eventually helped inform FDR’s New Deal.
Those who died in the Triangle fire a century ago could not save themselves. But they did not die in vain.