Two years before the horrific fire that claimed 146 garment workers, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was the focal point for a struggle that encompassed the entire garment industry of the city of New York
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory women strike, win better wages and hours, New York, 1909
Time Period: late Sept 1909 to Feb 1910
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory is best known for the unique fashion blouse they produced and the horrific fire that killed 146 workers, women who might have lived if the owners had been forced to ensure safety standards in the factory. Historically, the 1911 tragedy defined the Triangle workers as the victims of disaster.
The following is the untold story about those women, not as victims, but as the victors of increased wages and better working conditions and their assertiveness in rising up to demand a change in their conditions. This is the story of women, against enormous odds, forcing the Triangle owners to make concessions to their demands for justice.
Working conditions in the early twentieth century were not very safe for many factory workers. In June of 1909, a fire prevention specialist sent a letter to the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory to discuss ways to improve safety in the factory. This letter was ignored.
The work day at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was 14 hours long with only one break throughout the day. Extra bathroom breaks were often denied forcing people to urinate on the factory room floor adding to the already unsanitary work space. Poor ventilation and locked factory room doors were common. Heaping piles of fabric scraps littered the factory room floors. The workers were paid two dollars a day, were docked pay for their errors and for the needles and thread they consumed. Sometimes, they were docked more than they were paid.
At the end of September 1909, with the backing of Local 25 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) the Triangle Shirtwaist factory workers went on strike seeking increased wages, reduced working hours and union representation.
Conditions were no better at other factories. Unrest was infiltrating throughout the women’s garment workers industry. Something big was about to happen. On November 22, 1909, activist Clara Limlich spoke out at a union meeting that they must do something.
"I have listened to all the speakers, and I have no further patience for talk. I am a working girl, one of those striking against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in generalities. What we are here for is to decide whether or not to strike. I make a motion that we go out in a general strike."
As most women’s garment workers faced these desperate times, Limlich’s call for action against these repressive conditions resulted in a vote to strike. On November 24, 1909, in the largest single work stoppage in the US up to that time, twenty thousand workers walked off the job in an industry-wide strike joining the already striking Triangle workers. They sought better wages, standardized work day, improved working conditions, and union representation.
At first, people paid little attention, and the press barely made mention of the strike in their newspapers. Until in December 1909 Ann Morgan, daughter of international financier JP Morgan, took up the cause of the striking workers. Joining her in support of the workers was Alva Vanderbuilt Belmont. With the voices of these rich, upper class women, also known as the mink brigade, by the middle of December the media picked up on the story of the horrible working conditions. Within forty-eight hours, smaller businesses capitulated and workers began to return to union only workshops.
Not so at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory housed in the Asch Building in Greenwich Village. Owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were angered and indignant. They attempted to stymie the workers by hiring prostitutes to fight with the women on the picket lines. Blanck and Harris hired ex-prize fighters to pick fights with the picketers. Bribed policemen arrested any who fought back and dragged them off to court bandaged and bloodied. Bribed judges found workers guilty.
Blanck and Harris formed an association of the factory owners. By December 1909, they engaged in negotiations with the strikers offering increases in wages, and improvements in working conditions but stopped short of agreeing to allow the unions to organize in the factories.
Workers refused and the strike continued. Slowly one by one, individual factory owners agreed to the demands of the workers including union representation. But at Triangle, Harris and Blanck would not allow the union to be formed in their organization. Five months after they they began their strike, 23 February 1910, Triangle workers decided to accept increased wages and better hours. They did not get the much coveted union representation.
The success of this strike marked an important milestone for the development and growth of unions, in particular for unions of the ladies garment industries. This was the first successful uprising of workers in an action that demanded change and justice.
This article originally appeared in the April 4, 2011 issue of TIME Magazine
This article originally appeared in the Saturday December 8, 2012 edition of The New York Times
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Bender, Daniel E. Sweated Work, Weak Bodies: Anti-sweatshop Campaigns and Languages of Labor. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2004.
Cohen, Miriam. Workshop to Office: Two Generations of Italian Women in New York City, 1900-1950. New York: Cornell University Press, 1992.
Coser, Rose L., Anker, Laura S., Perrin, Andrew J. Women of Courage: Jewish and Italian Immigrant Women in New York. Connecticut: Greenwood Press 1999.
Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy:
Angie Boehm, 09/03/2013
Published for the Global Nonviolent Action Database