Death on the job was a routine hazard for American workers a century ago. About 100 workers, on average, died every day as mines collapsed, ships sank, trains crashed and factories burned. Nearly all of them are long forgotten.
But not the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. Events marking the 100th anniversary of that disaster in New York City have been planned across the country at public gatherings, panel discussions, art exhibitions and concerts. I used to stop on the sidewalk outside the scene of the fire — a 10-story tower still standing just east of Manhattan's Washington Square — and wonder why this tragedy is set apart from all the others. I could picture the horrific spectacle. On a bright spring Saturday, March 25, 1911, a fire broke out at closing time inside the city's largest blouse factory. Fueled by hundreds of pounds of highly flammable cotton and tissue scraps, the blaze spread quickly through the top three floors. Hundreds of onlookers converged as horse-drawn fire engines thundered from every direction. Trapped by flames and a locked door, workers on the ninth floor began to leap to their deaths. By the time the last victim succumbed to her injuries, the toll was 146 dead — 129 of them women, dozens of them teenagers. (See photos from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.)
It's often said the tragedy was so gruesome that New Yorkers could not possibly look away and forget. But that underestimates the vast and awful store of history that humans have gladly forgotten. The real reason we remember the Triangle fire is its legacy, not its toll. The story remains a compelling study of political power — where it comes from, what it's for — as relevant today as it was in the angry aftermath of that inferno.
At the dawn of the 20th century, New York had been run for more than a generation by the corrupt Democratic political machine known as Tammany Hall. Boss Charles F. Murphy ruled the city from his private room at Delmonico's restaurant, quietly tending the gears that turned the votes of poor immigrants into power and profit for Tammany. But new waves of immigrants were filling the grim tenements of Manhattan, and many of them weren't content to do the Tammany ward heelers' bidding. Especially among the East European Jews who fled the oppression of the dying Russian empire, a spirit of independence led the new arrivals to organize their own institutions: newspapers, charities, labor unions. (See Max Blanck and Isaac Harris in the top 10 worst bosses.)
They made their numbers known in the autumn of 1909, when more than 20,000 shirtwaist workers, most of them women, went on strike for better wages and union recognition. The following year, an even larger strike by the men of the cloakmakers' union created a model for modern industrial relations. Murphy had always taken the side of management — but his genius was the ability to count votes. He saw that the Triangle fire was a chance to win over the voters of this new generation.
Murphy created a powerful Factory Investigating Commission, led by two bright, young Tammany lawmakers: Robert F. Wagner and Alfred E. Smith. Over the next three years, the commission proposed and passed the most progressive agenda of workplace reforms the country had ever seen. Smith rode that agenda to four popular and effective terms as New York governor and in 1928 won his party's presidential nomination. Four years later, running on the same platform — and calling it the New Deal — Franklin D. Roosevelt reached the White House. FDR's right-hand man in the Senate was none other than Tammany's Bob Wagner.
The garment workers won safer factories and shorter hours not by dying but by organizing, by sticking together and building their strength. They also knew when to compromise, even with a calculating pragmatist like Charlie Murphy. Reform, Murphy came to believe, "made us many votes." (See the beginning of a new era for fashion in New York City.)
Such pragmatism drives blogging purists mad, but it remains the key to lasting influence in the U.S. Whether you're a union protester in the Madison statehouse or Wisconsin's union-busting Governor Scott Walker, your cause ultimately depends on your ability to win the next election.
At a ceremony on March 25, the names of all the victims of the Triangle fire were to be read for the first time, thanks to genealogist Michael Hirsch, who unearthed the names of the six unidentified victims. That's a fit and proper tribute. Their dreams — of safer workplaces, free of harassment and exploitation — are more real for us than they might have imagined on that doomed Saturday.
Von Drehle is the author of Triangle: The Fire That Changed America