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The NYC Tragedy that Emboldened America's Union Movement


A detail of the Eric Edward Esper painting, "The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911," depicts the event that occured on March 25, and led to serious government consideration of worker protections.

By Lisa Wright

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was New York City’s deadliest industrial disaster—and one of the most harrowing examples of how a lack of union representation can kill.

It was March 25, 1911. Garment workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory were getting ready to finish their Saturday shift. The Greenwich Village factory employed mostly Italian and Jewish immigrants, some as young as 14 years old. Before the day ended, tragedy struck.

What started as a smoldering match or cigarette in a pile of scrap fabric turned into a deadly fire that spread through the factory, which spanned the three top floors of the building. There were no sprinklers. Escape routes were blocked by flames. Even worse, some factory doors were locked, allegedly to reduce unauthorized breaks and theft. With no way out, dozens of young workers were forced to jump from 9th and 10th floor windows to their deaths. 146 workers died.

Efforts to Improve Workplace Safety

The gruesome scene shook the city. Days after the fire, 100,000 mourners marched in a funeral procession, with another 250,000 lining the streets to watch. It was a pivotal moment for the union movement, which would gain support in the city and across the country.

Workplace deaths were happening everywhere. In 1911, about 100 workers a day were dying on the job. But the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was shocking enough to initiate the formation of New York’s Committee on Public Safety to improve working conditions. A witness to the fire, a woman named Frances Perkins, was appointed the committee’s Executive Secretary. Perkins was a long-time workers’ rights advocate, but her impressive career had just begun.

Two decades later in 1933, Perkins was appointed U.S. Secretary of Labor by Franklin D. Roosevelt. As the first woman cabinet member, she’d help FDR institute pro-union legislation that would last long beyond her lifetime.


The photo on left shows a typical day at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. On the right is the devastation wrought by the fire. The manufacturer management has been accused of locking exit doors to discourage employee breaks.

A False Start

Following the Great Depression, FDR sought to revitalize and stabilize the U.S. economy. Unions were gaining strength, but tensions were high. Violent strikes and conflicts were common, and the feds were anxious to get the situation under control.

In 1933, the Roosevelt administration passed the progressive National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) as part of the first New Deal. NIRA guaranteed the right to bargain collectively. It also established the National Recovery Administration (NRA), which allowed businesses to collectively set minimum wages, hourly workweeks, and price points for products.

While the program was well-intentioned, it was manipulated by larger companies to serve their own benefit. Plus, businesses started “company unions” as a way around collective bargaining. These false unions were, of course, dominated by the companies themselves, and had no intention of representing employees’ rights.

By 1935, NIRA was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, sending FDR and Perkins back to the drawing board.

Meanwhile, workplace tensions were worsening. Grassroots efforts to organize were happening across the country, but businesses kept pushing back every chance they got. Workers were targeted, harassed, spied on, and blacklisted for their union involvement. Conflicts were raging from coast to coast. Change was needed, fast.

This article is the first of a three-part series about the birth, defeats, and reawakening of America's labor movement.

The National Labor Relations Act Passes

Following NIRA came the National Labor Relations Act, or NLRA. This Act was the first federal law governing unions—and is still in place today. Also known as the Wagner Act (after its Democratic sponsor Sen. Robert F. Wagner), it instituted crucial labor reforms.

NLRA was passed on July 5, 1935. It officially designated the Federal government as the regulator and arbiter of labor relations and contained important pro-union provisions. This included prohibiting the following unfair labor practices:

— Interfering with an employee's right to organize, join, or assist labor unions, and collectively bargain about wages, hours, and working conditions

— Controlling or interfering with the creation or administration of labor organizations

— Discriminating against employees based on their membership (or lack thereof) in a labor union (and abolished company unions)

— Retaliating against employees who file charges or provide testimony under the Act

— Refusing to participate in collective bargaining with representatives of employees

Only the Beginning

The Act also created a permanent National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) with five main functions: conducting elections, investigating charges, facilitating settlements, deciding cases, and enforcing orders.

With unions now legitimized by the NLRA, things were looking bright for workers. Union membership was exploding. Between 1930 and 1945, the percentage of unionized workers ballooned from 7% to nearly 34% (compare that with today, with only 10% of privatized workers belonging to a union). In the union heyday, it seemed we were headed for a safer, more equitable workplace. We finally had protections in place and federal government watchdogs to enforce them.


Lisa Wright is a journalist and author of several books.

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