Remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, a century ago today

The tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire took place 100 years ago today in New York City. Many of the lives lost in the fire were blue collar women laborers, and the site, even before the fire, played an important role in women’s history. Here, many immigrant laborer women went on strike and held walkouts and labor protests to bring light to the lack of protection labor policies gave them. Author Jennifer Guglielmo details some of the struggles that Italian-American women faced in her book, Living the Revolution: Italian Women’s Resistance and Radicalism in New York City, 1880-1945. The following excerpt from the book focuses on the fire and the effects of labor uprisings between 1910 and 1913:

The Italian women who composed the first organizing teams for the ILGWU differed from their rank-and-file counterparts in one significant respect: most did not have children. Still, they worked in the same “women’s jobs” as operatives, drapers, finishers, hemstitchers, and examiners. They became radicalized by the deteriorating labor conditions in the factories, exemplified most dramatically by the devastating fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory near Washington Square on 25 March 1911, which claimed the lives of 146 garment workers—the vast majority Italian and Jewish women and girls. The Triangle Fire was particularly devastating because it had been cited during the 1909 strike for hazardous working conditions. Moreover, the nightmare of dozens of workers—almost entirely young women in their teens and early twenties—jumping from the eighth and ninth floors of the factory and hitting the sidewalk with such force that they shattered the cement was horrific. Those who survived revealed that employers had locked the doors to keep workers from taking breaks and to prevent petty theft. They had disregarded rusty fire escapes and carelessly kept highly flammable oil close to bundles of fabric. Rage deepened. Many Italian immigrant women marked the fire as the critical moment when they committed themselves to the labor movement, believing that unionism was their most powerful recourse.

In addition, the highly publicized and violent labor uprisings between 1910 and 1913, in Lawrence, Paterson, Chicago, Tampa, and other cities where Italian women were major components of the labor force, further politicized Italian immigrant women in New York City and New Jersey. These events also helped to unify Italian immigrant communities. Workers across regional and craft differences came together, and for the first time the mainstream Italian-language press, the prominenti, and local parish priests joined together in defense of labor.  In New York and New Jersey, Italian immigrant workers launched their own mass movement in 1913, in the hopes of building on the successful 1912 strike in Lawrence, to launch a series of general strikes that would change the face of the American labor movement.

The Turning Point of 1913

With tens of thousands of Italian immigrant women joining in labor uprisings, 1913 unfolded as a year of dramatic activity. One mother of six children who joined the 1913 garment workers’ strike in New York City spoke for many when she explained her rationale for joining the movement: “It’s all for my childs. I fight them again. I no care.” Stories of Italian women’s militancy appeared in leftist and mainstream newspapers daily because disturbances and confrontations became regular fare. In the first days of the strike, a group of several hundred Italian women stormed a large factory in lower Manhattan wielding umbrellas as weapons and lunging at police officers who tried to keep them from entering. Once inside the shop, “the women, fighting like furies, jabbed right and left with their umbrellas and in their excitement sometimes jabbed strikers.” Such demonstrations culminated in a meeting at Union Square on 14 January in which newspapers estimated that 100,000 attended. The New York Call reported, “There were Jews, Italians, Russians, Lithuanians, Poles, Germans, Americans, Spaniards, Hungarians, and others.”  Four days later, however, Italian women would gather in Cooper Union to learn that the union had sacrificed their demands and settled without the women’s approval.

In the following weeks, Italian women launched a movement of their own, confronting workers who crossed their picket lines. Angelina Bruno, Marguerite Cololito, and Rosie Cereida were just a few of the many young women arrested daily for disorderly conduct, when they tried to persuade other workers outside the factory to ignore the settlement and defy the union; their last names suggest they were not all Italian. The union and manufacturers were forced to meet again, as a result of the unrest, to work out a new settlement. But the union also issued a statement expressing its disbelief that the women were acting on their own. Rather, they announced “that there was no real discontent among the workers, only a plot by the rival Industrial Workers of the World to destroy the union,” and declared that the Italian women had been “easily pacified.” ILGWU officials focused their contempt on the IWW because many of the disgruntled workers turned to the revolutionary industrial union as they grew frustrated with the ILGWU’s accommodationist strategy. What the ILGWU leaders failed to see was that Italian women were using a strategy of resistance that was proven in its effectiveness. As in their homelands, they deployed mass-based street demonstrations, civil disobedience, and the direct action of female mobs to assert their voices. The Italian-language press came to the defense of the strikers, and almost $1 million in funds was raised by Italian mutual aid societies.

This spirit of resistance spread across the city and into northeastern New Jersey. By February workers in Paterson were also inspired to launch what they hoped would be a duplication of the 1912 Lawrence strike. Immigrant textile workers, joined in solidarity across lines of ethnicity, led by a largely female rank and file, and supported by the IWW, hoped to force mill owners to meet their demands. Moreover, for the IWW the strike provided an opportunity to challenge the growing power of the AFL unions. From the beginning, Italian immigrant radical circles constituted the heart of the movement. They provided the meeting halls, enlisted inspiring speakers to address the crowds of strikers, and formed a core group of organizers and picketers. Paterson was particularly well suited for such a movement because the anarchist movement was strong and more than nine thousand of the city’s residents were IWW members. As historian Steve Golin has noted, “In this fluid atmosphere, in which capitalism itself was open to question and revolution seemed a real possibility, the IWW thrived.”  While the IWW was able to serve the workers of Paterson at this time, the strike was entirely immigrant directed—“the workers created their own unity.”

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Jennifer Guglielmo is associate professor of history at Smith College. Visit the Living the Revolution Facebook page and become a fan.

The Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition will be livestreaming their centennial commemoration events today starting at 11 a.m. Eastern at rememberthetrianglefire.org

Excerpt from Living the Revolution: Italian Women’s Resistance and Radicalism in New York City, 1880-1945.  Copyright © 2010 by Jennifer Guglielmo.

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