The Legacy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
March 23, 2021
An event 110 years ago would change the lives of factory workers forever. It was March 25, 1911 and the location was downtown Manhattan; specifically, the Triangle Shirtwaist factory located in Greenwich Village. It was there on that date that the deadliest industrial fire occurred in the history of New York City. In total, 146 garment industry workers – 123 women and girls, two as young as 14 years old, and 23 men, then earning between $7 and $12 for a 52-hour work week – lost their lives. Because the factory’s exit doors were locked, these largely Italian and Jewish immigrants died of fire, smoke inhalation and from jumping to their deaths from the factory’s 8th, 9th, and 10th floors. The outrage at these needless deaths led to both the introduction of new workplace safety standards and gave birth to a labor movement and growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), among others. The union would go on to fight for better working conditions for laborers in sweatshop environments like those who perished in the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.
Those visiting lower Manhattan can still see the building where the fire took place. It has since been designated a National History Landmark as well as a New York City landmark and annual events occur to commemorate the occasion and remember those who perished. The real legacy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, however, in addition to the growth of the labor movement, was the inception of the American Society of Safety Professionals (formerly known as the American Society of Safety Engineers), formed the same year as the fire. This global organization now supports over 37,000 occupational safety and health professional members in their efforts to prevent workplace injuries, illnesses and fatalities through education, advocacy, and standards development.
For the Amalgamated Family of Companies, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire has special significance. In giving momentum to the labor movement, it also served as a catalyst for Sidney Hillman’s emergence as a national labor leader. Like others, the fire had a profound effect on Hillman who was moved to defend and advocate for garment workers. His roles as a rank-and-file strike leader and business agent for a local of the United Garment Workers, ultimately led to the formation of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. It was regarded as a nontraditional union in prioritizing the interests and well-being of its members above all.
Over the years, Sidney Hillman would go on to lead many important labor initiatives ranging from developing working standards to regulate the industry to promoting cooperative dispute resolution among unions and employers. Hillman’s effective leadership earned him prominent roles under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration including appointments to the Labor Advisory Board and National Industrial Recovery Board. He was instrumental in the drafting of the National Labor Relations Act and enactment of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Other of his labor achievements include his role in many major Congress of Industrial Organizations initiatives and the formation of both the Textile Workers Union of America and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Workers Union of America.
In 1943, Sidney Hillman founded Amalgamated Life Insurance Company, whose mission continues today to advance his commitment to helping working people and their families achieve financial security by providing affordable life, health and pension products and services while maintaining an unwavering commitment to excellence. Hillman passed away in 1946, but just as the legacy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire lives on, so too does his legacy and many contributions to working people in America and across the globe.
This year we commemorated the event virtually. Please use the below link to watch the recording: