One of the first U.S. workers' organizations to have a primarily female membership; it was deeply involved in the aftermath of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, 1911, was the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of New York City and resulted in the fourth-highest loss of life from an industrial accident in U.S. history. The fire caused the deaths of 146 garment workers, who died from the fire, smoke inhalation, or falling or jumping to their deaths. Most of the victims were recent Jewish and Italian immigrant women aged 16 to 23; of the victims whose ages are known, the oldest victim was Providenza Panno at 43, and the youngest were Kate Leone and "Sara" Rosaria Maltese at 14.
Because the managers had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits—a common practice at the time to prevent pilferage and unauthorized breaks—many of the workers who could not escape the burning building jumped to the streets below from the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors. The fire led to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, which fought for better working conditions for sweatshop workers.
The company's owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, who survived the fire by fleeing to the building's roof when the fire began, were indicted on charges of first- and second-degree manslaughter in mid-April; the pair's trial began on December 4, 1911. The jury acquitted the two men of first- and second-degree manslaughter, but they were found liable of wrongful death during a subsequent 1913 civil suit in which plaintiffs were awarded compensation in the amount of $75 per deceased victim. The insurance company paid Blanck and Harris about $60,000 more than the reported losses, or about $400 per casualty.
In New York City, a Committee on Public Safety was formed, headed by noted social worker Frances Perkins, to identify specific problems and lobby for new legislation, such as the bill to grant workers shorter hours in a work week, known as the "54-Hour Bill." The New York State Legislature then created the Factory Investigating Commission to, "investigate factory conditions in this and other cities and to report remedial measures of legislation to prevent hazard or loss of life among employees through fire, unsanitary conditions, and occupational diseases." Their findings led to 38 new laws regulating labor in New York State, and gave the commission members a reputation as leading progressive reformers working on behalf of the working class.
International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union
The International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) was once one of the largest labor unions in the United States, one of the first U.S. unions to have a primarily female membership, and a key player in the labor history of the 1920s and 1930s.
The ILGWU experienced a sudden upsurge in membership as the result of two successful mass strikes in New York City. The first, in 1909, was known as the "Uprising of the 20,000” and lasted 14 weeks. It was largely spontaneous, sparked by a short walkout of workers of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, involving only about 20 percent of the workforce. That, however, only prompted the rest of the workers to seek help from the union. The firm locked out its employees when it learned what was happening. The news of the strike spread quickly to all of the New York garment workers. At a series of mass meetings, after the leading figures of the American labor movement spoke in general terms about the need for solidarity and preparedness, Clara Lemlich rose to speak about the conditions she and other women worked under. She demanded an end to talk and called for a strike of the entire industry. Approximately 20,000 out of the 32,000 workers in the shirtwaist trade walked out during the next two days.
The union also became more involved in electoral politics, in part as a result of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. The fire had various effects on the community. It further radicalized some; at the memorial meeting held in the Metropolitan Opera House on April 2, 1911, Rose Schneiderman addressed an audience largely made up of the well-heeled members of the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) and said the following:
I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting. The old Inquisition had its rack and its thumbscrews and its instruments of torture with iron teeth. We know what these things are today; the iron teeth are our necessities, the thumbscrews are the high-powered and swift machinery close to which we must work, and the rack is here in the firetrap structures that will destroy us the minute they catch on fire... I can't talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.