The Legacy of the Triangle Factory Fire

A century later, sweatshops haven’t gone away — they’ve just traveled overseas along with the bulk of apparel manufacturing.

View Slideshow
Appeared In
Special Issue
WWDStyle issue 03/21/2011

One hundred years after the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, sweatshops haven’t gone away — they’ve just traveled overseas along with the bulk of apparel manufacturing.

This story first appeared in the March 21, 2011 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

However, experts said the industry is making some progress in curtailing egregious abuses in clothing factories in the new era of corporate social responsibility.

A lot has changed in the way the fashion industry does business since that seminal moment in history, which not only led to a raft of new labor laws but also galvanized the labor movement and the public to demand new health and safety, and wage and hour, laws on behalf of tens of thousands of mostly immigrant workers toiling in factories across the nation in the early days of the 20th century.

The tragedy occurred on March 25, 1911, when a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, located just east of Washington Square Park in the Greenwich Village section of Manhattan. The factory occupied the eighth, ninth and 10th floors of the 10-story Asch building. The fire started in a scrap bin on the eighth floor, where employees then notified the 10th floor switchboard, but the ninth floor never received warning. In minutes, the entire factory was engulfed in flames.

On the ninth floor, the owners had locked one of the two exit doors to prevent theft. A panicked rush of workers piled up by the other door, which opened inward, and would soon be blocked by a wall of flames. Some workers ran to the flimsy fire escape, but it collapsed. The elevators ran as long as they could, but were made inoperable by the force of the working girls jumping down the shaft to avoid the fire and by excessive heat from the flames bending their tracks. The fire department arrived quickly, but their ladders could only reach the sixth floor. People on the street watched in horror as the young garment workers leaped out the windows and through the firemen’s nets.

In the end, 146 people died, most of them Jewish and Italian immigrant women. The fire occurred during an era of rapid industrialization, an exploding immigrant population and emerging unionization. It was a time of intense conflict on both the social and political fronts.

The tragedy outraged the city and galvanized the labor movement. It instantly became a symbol of the struggle between management and labor that had been percolating for some time and would escalate in its aftermath.

Reviewing the Triangle Fire at a gathering this month at New York University’s Bobst Library, Richard Greenwald, author of “The Triangle Fire, the Protocols of Peace and Industrial Democracy in Progressive Era New York,” noted how the disaster was preceded by a wave of strikes by workers against factory owners. This included two major events: a 1909 strike of New York shirtwaist and dressmakers against sweatshop conditions, dubbed the “Uprising of the 20,000,” and “The Great Revolt,” a strike of 60,000 New York garment workers in 1910 that was settled by the famous “Protocols of Peace,” created at conferences presided over by Boston lawyer Louis D. Brandeis, who would later become a Supreme Court justice. The protocols raised wages, reduced working hours, outlawed homework, guaranteed preference to union members in hiring, prohibited strikes and lockouts, and provided for settling disputes by impartial arbitration.

Greenwald noted that it was then-State Senator Robert F. Wagner who wrote the commission report that led to 36 state labor laws being enacted in three years as a result of the fire, the worst industrial accident in New York history and the most people killed in a building fire until Sept. 11, 2001. Somewhat ironically, Greenwald also discussed how Franklin D. Roosevelt, also a state senator at the time, voted against all the measures, but who would then propose similar federal statutes during the New Deal with Wagner, who had became a U.S. senator and one of FDR’s key allies.

“The truth is that Wagner wasn’t considered a friend of labor in his early days, and Roosevelt clearly wasn’t, yet they wrote some of the most important labor laws in history, including the National Labor Relations Act, also known as the Wagner Act,” said Greenwald. “So it’s evident that both men’s views were influenced by the fire and the public outcry that followed.”

Leigh Benin, co-author of the just released book “The New York City Triangle Factory Fire,” noted that FDR’s future labor secretary, Frances Perkins, the first female cabinet member in U.S. history, lived nearby and was quickly on the scene after the fire broke out. He showed photos that Perkins said impacted her of women jumping from the windows of the factory to their deaths to avoid being burned alive. He also showed photos of the fire trucks on the scene, which actually put out the fire in 20 minutes and saved the structure that still stands today, but couldn’t save the women because their ladders only reached to the sixth floor and the factory was located in floors eight through 10. The building is now part of New York University.

Perkins later said the incident she witnessed was “seared on my mind as well as my heart, a never-to-be-forgotten reminder of why I had to spend my life fighting conditions that could permit such a tragedy.”

Benin also showed photos of the April 5 funeral march in which 100,000 people participated, as 250,000 others watched the procession in silent solidarity.

Perkins became head of the state Factory Investigating Commission formed three months later to study and make recommendations on working conditions. The findings of the commission would have a far-reaching impact on protective labor legislation and fire safety laws in New York and later across the nation during Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Throughout the decades that followed, organized labor grew in size and power, and unrest, protests and strikes became part of the ongoing struggle between management and labor over workers’ rights and labor costs, and productivity and profits. But for many it seemed the stigma of the sweatshop had gone away, that more responsible owners — combined with a slew of labor laws ranging from safety and fire codes to wage and hour guidelines and workplace standards — provided stricter accountability and a more mature industry.

But a new dynamic was brought into play in the last quarter of the 20th century: the import era. Apparel companies started shifting production offshore, away from the hubs of New York and Los Angeles to countries such as Mexico, China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Honduras in search of cheaper and new supplies of labor to feed the growing appetite of the American middle class. An estimated 95 percent of all apparel purchased in the U.S. now is imported, according to industry figures. In 2010, the U.S. imported $93.2 billion worth of apparel and textiles.

Yet as the wave of imports grew, there were several scandals in the Nineties that showed sweatshops hadn’t been eradicated either in the U.S. or abroad.

On Aug. 2, 1995, California state labor officials found 72 illegal Thai immigrants living in peonage and being paid as little as $1 an hour to sew garments 18 hours a day for brand-name labels at a contractor in El Monte, Calif. The companies collectively paid $2.5 million toward repaying the Thai workers’ back wages.

A string of incidents around the same time involving TV personality Kathie Lee Gifford, who had a signature line sold through Wal-Mart that was found being produced in sweatshops in Honduras and Manhattan, led her to join President Clinton’s White House Task Force to Eliminate Sweatshop Abuses. It helped bring on the advent of corporate codes of conduct for apparel production and a new era of corporate social responsibility that stressed the need for U.S.-based firms to have higher standards than the countries in which they were manufacturing. Firms hired CSR executives and began regular inspections of their contractors — and even subcontractors — to ensure they were abiding by established codes of conduct in terms of wages, hours and working conditions.

The industry’s action came after the images of several firms, including Nike, were damaged because of the alleged use of sweatshop labor by some of their contractors. And it’s an ongoing problem for the fashion world. Just this past December, a fire in a Bangladesh factory that was reportedly making goods for H&M killed 25 people.

But industry executives contend the situation has vastly improved.

“Our industry has progressed greatly in 100 years,” said Kevin Burke, president and chief executive officer of the American Apparel & Footwear Association. “No responsible company wants to run or be associated with a sweatshop, but that’s not to say they are not out there.”

Burke said the fire at the garment factory in Bangladesh compels the industry to redouble its efforts to not let another tragedy happen.

“Nobody is saying that would not happen again. It could have been an accident or a lot of things,” he said. “The reality is we are making great strides and putting a lot of money and effort into making certain we are not tagged as operating with sweatshops.”

He said the industry “lives and dies” based on consumer acceptance of a particular brand and cannot afford to be “tarnished” by an association with illegal practices.

“Just because we export [production] does not mean we are hiding offshore,” Burke said. “We have as much responsibility as we did then, but today we have created an environment that is much safer than it was five, 10 and 100 years ago.”

Steven Jesseph, president and ceo of the Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production organization, which has certified more than 10,000 factories in 72 different countries since its inception in 2000, said most companies want to do business in a socially responsible way.

“The majority of companies I know and work with, from U.S. to European, Australian, Japanese, Latin American and Asian companies, will not do business in facilities until they do a pre-audit and ensure compliance with WRAP or their own codes of conduct,” Jesseph said. “They will just not work in sweatshops. It is part of their DNA and I am seeing an increasing number of people take that rigid approach for all of the right reasons — not just reputational risks but because it’s the right thing to do.”

Jesseph said he views reform in the apparel industry as a “one generation issue.”

“We are trying to fundamentally change the way people do business and the way people treat other people,” he said. “Are we going to achieve some utopian level of compliance overnight? No. But are there massive numbers of concerned companies who participate in regular discussions and training and compliance programs because they do care? Yes.”

While the industry believes it is making strides, workers’ rights groups, nongovernmental organizations and labor groups argue that progress in reducing or eliminating sweatshops in overseas factories has been slow.

Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum, said there are parallels between the Triangle Shirtwaist fire 100 years ago and two separate fires in garment factories in Bangladesh last year that killed a total of 53 workers.

“I have worked on initiatives to improve labor rights in factories abroad for 20 years and my view is that it often feels like we are taking one step forward and two steps back,” Gearhart said. “We have seen over the past 10 to 12 years corporate codes of conduct that all now include the rights of the freedom of association and collective bargaining, and in the main and formal sector production there has been a lot of headway on stopping child labor.”

There has been some progress on the part of fashion leaders to step up monitoring and weed out unsafe and unethical factories, Gearhart said, but the problem is complex because the supply chain is so deep and diversified.

“Frankly, the problem keeps expanding,” she said. “The minute you try to address one place and make progress in one country, you find labor rights abuses ballooning when the production moves to the next cheaper country.”

Asked how far the industry has come since the tragic fire a century ago, Gearhart said it seems “not to have come very far” because she feels the industry “pushes the responsibility” down the supply chain.

“If you look at garment-producing brands out there, it’s such a small slice that are really taking significant measures and so many of the monitoring initiatives are not sufficiently connected with local organizations that are able to really provide the kind of information needed from the workers’ side,” she said. “The real question is: How do we pair the top-down approach of corporate social responsibility efforts with the bottom-up approach of trade union organizations?”

One major union leader believes the fashion industry has made little progress in eradicating sweatshops.

“First of all, sweatshops have not disappeared from this country,” said Bruce Raynor, president of Workers United and executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union. “The garment industry has always produced sweatshops — it did in 1911 with the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and it does again in 2010 with the Bangladesh fires.”

Raynor called company CSR programs “extremely inadequate and uneven,” but he said some companies are making a real effort, pointing to Levi Strauss & Co., Liz Claiborne Inc., Limited Brands Inc. and Gap Inc.

“If you don’t have trade worker union movements in these countries, workers have no way to protest or bargain and you have to rely on your own inspectors, which is a big disappointment,” Raynor said. “I think while you might not see anything as egregious as El Monte, the existence of widespread sweatshops in this country and globally is a hallmark of this industry.”

The solution is threefold, he said: Workers must have the right to organize unions and stand up for collective bargaining, retailers and apparel brands must take more responsibility down the supply chain for workers, and consumers have to demand it.

Charles Kernaghan, director of the Institute for Global Labor & Human Rights, formerly the National Labor Committee, said sweatshops exist in most countries but there have been some improvements.

“Apparel companies won’t touch child labor anymore,” Kernaghan said for example. “Those are third rails they don’t touch, and sexual harassment and abuse goes on unfortunately, but not like in the past.”

He dismissed CSR programs as “fig leafs,” saying they are ineffective because workers do not trust the inspectors and will not disclose information. He noted that to enact real change it will take legislation essentially requiring companies to adhere to local labor laws and ILO standards or banning imports made in sweatshops.

In the end, what it may come down to what former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who was in charge of Clinton’s anti-sweatshop coalition, said falls somewhere between the industry’s own self-analysis and that of organized labor and NGOs.

“I would say progress has come at a snail’s pace,” said Reich, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley. “Certain companies seem to have taken seriously their responsibility to police their contractors and subcontractors to make sure that no workers here or abroad are being mistreated. But I can’t honestly say as a whole the industry has embraced the principle that major retailers and manufacturers have such responsibilities.”

Reich said consumers are the key.

“If they put pressure on large U.S. retailers and manufacturers and demand some evidence that the clothing they buy was not made in sweatshop conditions, the industry will respond,” he said. “But in order for consumers to put that kind of pressure on the industry, consumers themselves have to be motivated. It is unfortunate that it often takes a tragedy of such horrible proportion like the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire to wake up the public and political leaders to the necessity of regulations and enforcement.”


View Slideshow