Triangle Shirtwaste Fire, Unions, and Worker Safety

Friday is the 100th anniversary of an American workplace disaster: the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. This tragedy reminds us of the importance of unions and collective bargaining in protecting the safety — and sometimes the lives — of workers.

When the fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. on the top floors of a building in New York City, more than 200 employees jammed the only available exit. 

The company had locked the other door, claiming it needed to do so to stop employee theft. 

There was just one working elevator. The fire escape collapsed. Many workers jumped from window ledges and fell to their deaths in front of large crowds. 

In all, 146 workers died, many of their bodies charred beyond recognition. The victims were mostly women.

Investigations showed that health and safety laws were inadequate. A retired New York City fire chief testified that employers “pay absolutely no attention to the fire hazard or to the protection of the employees in these buildings. That is their last consideration.” The fire department had cited the Triangle building for its lack of fire escapes just a week before the disaster.

Many other companies in the industry and area were unionized. Had the Triangle Shirtwaist workers succeeded in their efforts to form a union that could have negotiated health and safety issues, they might have had a much better chance of surviving.

Progressives won some reforms in this era, but business and real estate owners often fought basic workplace rules.

After the fire department ordered New York warehouses to install sprinklers, the Protective League of Property Owners denounced the idea, complaining of “cumbersome and costly” equipment. 

The Associated Industries of New York claimed safety regulations would mean “the wiping out of industry in this state.” The Real Estate Board argued that new laws would drive “manufacturers out of the City and State of New York.” 

Such claims echo whenever unions or legislatures attempt to give workers basic rights. The role of unions has long been crucial in the fight for workplace safety.

The International Ladies Garment Workers Union bargained with employers to create a Joint Board of Sanitary Control, to help make workplaces safer. Its counterpart in the men’s garment industry also worked to ensure safer workplaces. These unions saved thousands of lives.

Workplace safety laws do not enforce themselves. Even in workplaces that are covered by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act, inspections are rare and enforcement is infrequent. Union-negotiated safety rules that employees help shape and enforce remain vital safeguards.