Read time: 15 minutes

Triangle: Remembering The Fire

If you've got HBO, set your recording devices for this show if you're not going to be home Monday night. It premiers at 9pm eastern time March 21st. Laura Clawson did a very good write up on this at Daily KOS -- Triangle: Remembering the

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If you've got HBO, set your recording devices for this show if you're not going to be home Monday night. It premiers at 9pm eastern time March 21st. Laura Clawson did a very good write up on this at Daily KOS -- Triangle: Remembering the Fire:

This is the week of the 100th anniversary of the Triangle fire, and tomorrow (Monday) night at 9:00, HBO is airing a new documentary. Triangle: Remembering the Fire is relatively brief, but it adds a great deal to the sketch, on several levels.

The documentary first places the Triangle fire in context: Less than two years earlier, garment workers had gone on strike in the Uprising of 20,000, making outrageous demands like a 52-hour work week and overtime pay.

Meanwhile, the fiercely anti-union owners of the Triangle factory met with owners of the 20 largest factories to form a manufacturing association. Many of the strike leaders worked there, and the Triangle owners wanted to make sure other factory owners were committed to doing whatever it took—from using physical force (by hiring thugs to beat up strikers) to political pressure (which got the police on their side)—to not back down.

Soon after, police officers began arresting strikers, and judges fined them and sentenced some to labor camps. One judge, while sentencing a picketer for “incitement,” explained, “You are striking against God and Nature, whose law is that man shall earn his bread by the sweat of his brow. You are on strike against God!”

The Triangle company held out, the workers went back, and the safety concerns they raised went unaddressed. That New York's garment workers had been fighting for better treatment, and that many of the fire's deaths might have been prevented had they succeeded, is a central part of the context Triangle: Remembering the Fire provides.

That context of struggle is crucial to understanding the fire's aftermath, in which New York instituted a range of workplace protections. Frances Perkins would later famously call March 25, 1911 "the day the New Deal began."

Much more there on the documentary so go read the rest. I also wanted to share this with everyone here. I transcribed part of a book I bought some years back titled Labor's Untold Story, written by the United Radio, Electrical and Machine Workers of America back in 1955. It's out of print but you can still buy a copy at Amazon here.

We don't teach this history in our schools, so I'm glad to see HBO doing this sort of documentary. It's important that we understand what it took to get so many of the things we take for granted right now and now easily we could go back to these days if we don't understand that the ultra-rich basically consider most of us a commodity that's expendable. And before you read the excerpt from the book below, a warning that some of it is not safe for work due to a few curse words. It's pages 186-191 of the book and recounts the incident at Triangle and the other strikes and the lifestyles of the Robber Barons around the time of the fire at the Triangle factory.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. The rich are using the same playbook now that they did back in the early 1900's. Control the press so you propagandize the public, go after public education, use religious leaders to help your cause and trash unions.

In addition, the commission found, the Morgans, Rockefellers, and their allies were controlling the thoughts of Americans as well as their lives. Through monopoly ownership of influence, the press expressed monopoly’s policies. Moreover, Wall Street was increasingly controlling public education, as well as colleges, universities, professors, and preachers through gifts, endowments, and foundations. The report continued:

The domination by the men in whose hands the final control of a large part of American industry rests is not limited to their employees, but is being rapidly extended to control the education and “social service” of the Nation. This control is being extended largely through the creation of enormous privately managed funds for indefinite purposes, hereinafter designated as “foundations” by the endowment of colleges and universities, by the creation of funds for the pensioning of teachers, by contributions to private charities as well as through controlling or influencing the public press…

Apart from these foundations, there is developing a degree of control over the teachings of professors in our colleges and universities, which constitutes a serious menace. In June of this year [1915] two professors were dropped… [one] professor of law in a state university, who had acted as counsel for the strikers in Colorado; the other, a professor of economics active in the fights in behalf of child labor legislation and other progressive measures.

Turning to women workers, the commission declared that nearly one-half of them earned less than $6 weekly and asked:

Six dollars a week—what does it mean to many? Three theater tickets, gasoline for the week, or the price of a dinner for two; a pair of shoes, three pairs of gloves, or the cost of an evening at bridge. To the [working] girl it means that every penny must be counted, every normal desire stifled, and every basic necessity of life barely satisfied by the sacrifice of some other necessity.

The conditions under which most women worked were described by Louise Marion Bosworth in 1911:

In one factory of a well-known hat company the women stitch all day in a gloomy room with bare and dirty brick walls, the floor cluttered with crumbs, crusts and dirty cups from the brief lunch on the work tables. They work ten hours a day, only stopping long enough to heat some cold tea at noon…

In a box factory the girls take off their street suits and put on old skirts and waists matted with glue and dirt, in which they spend ten hours a day “scoring,” cutting and snipping, wetting great sheets of paper with paste… lifting the heavy finished boxes back and forth, or deftly covering little ones and throwing them rapidly into a basket, at a few cents a day.

In an overall factory, the light is so poor, and soot-caked windows make it so dim, that some of the women who work there say they cannot stand the eye strain and will have to work elsewhere.

In one shoe factory town many complaints are heard about the ventilators; in winter the windows are kept closed until the girls’ shirt waists are wet with perspiration. Then at five the suddenly emerge into the winter air and consequently have perpetual coughs.

Thirty-seven percent of working class mothers, according to the Industrial Commission were forced to work for wages in addition to caring for their families. On New York’s East Side, where the sweatshops were filled with thousands of working women, the intolerable conditions under which they worked were brought to the attention of the public by the tragedy of the Triangle fire, when one hundred and forty-six women were burned to death in a crowded, packed loft from which there was no effective escape.

Militant Jewish workers, most of them fresh from Czarist Russia and possessed of a rich tradition of struggle on behalf of labor organizations and against anti-Semitic programs, rose in revolt against sweatshop conditions in the needle trades at about this time. Herded together in broken-down tenements or in basements, the air saturated with dust and stench, they worked as many as fourteen hours a day at wages not enough to support themselves, much less their families, the helpless victims of a speed-up system that added to the wrecking of their health and vitality. Ill-ventilated and disease-breeding, the shops in which these workers toiled were more often firetraps, as illustrated by the tragic Triangle Waist Company fire.

It was against these sweatshop conditions with their low wages, killing speed-up and hazardous working set-up that tens of thousands of Jewish needle workers from New York’s East Side revolted in a series of great strikes. In 1909 twenty thousand shirt-waist makers, four-fifths of whom were women, went out on strike. Their bravery and unity on the picket lines led the then not too militant Sam Gompers, AFL president, to make the following observation: “The girls were willing to go hungry and many of them did so; they braved the ruffianly police while peacefully picketing, went to imprisonment as part of their duty to their comrades when sentenced by unsympathetic magistrates, skillfully and energetically aroused a sentiment in their favor in the community, and finally convinced their employers that they had learned the merits of combination for their plainly just purposes.

The following year, 1910, saw over sixty thousand cloakmakers, the vast majority of them Jewish, go out on strike and after a courageous and militant struggle win a collective bargaining agreement. The signing of this “Protocal of Peace” established the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, founded ten years before, on a solid basis. From 1910 to 1920 the union spread to Chicago, Boston, Cleveland, and other cities and by 1920 had a membership of over 100,000.

The uprisings of 1909-1910 in the women’s clothing industries had their union repercussions in the men’s clothing field. In 1910 the workers of Hart, Schaffner & Marz, the largest clothing manufacturing company in the country, went out in a city-wide strike in Chicago, the strike ending with the company recognizing the United Garment Workers Union. As more and more of the industry was organized, chiefly as a result of the militant strikes of tens of thousands of Jewish workers, a rank-and-file movement developed against the Rickert clique that dominated the Garment workers. When in 1914 these rank-and-filers were refused seats at the Garment Workers Convention and their request for recognition was denied by the conservative AFL officialdom, they founded the amalgamated Clothing Workers Union in 1915. Within fours years the militant leadership of the new union was able to organize a majority of the leading clothing manufacturers in the country.

Meanwhile unions were organizing women’s auxiliaries. Annie Clemence, a Slav girl of about twenty-four, was the president of the ladies’ auxiliary of the Western Federation of Miners in Michigan’s copper country. There, 15,000 copper miners with an average pay of $1 a day were on strike against the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company. The officials of the company had announced a 400 percent stockholders’ dividend a short time before the strike was called, not long before Christmas of 1913. Annie Clemence had organized a Christmas party for the children of the strikers in a hall with only one exit and that at the foot of a long and narrow stairway. A deputy, intent on breaking up the party, shouted “Fire!” when there was no fire.

Ella Reeve Bloor (“Mother Bloor”), then a Socialist organizer, was a witness. She writes:

On Christmas eve the children gathered in a hall where Annie had fixed up a Christmas tree. First the children sang, and then the presents were given out. A little towheaded Finnish girl of about 13, with long braids down her back got up and said, “Don’t be scared, many had gone through one door, as the room was still crowded. We tried to keep the entertainment going. The little girl kept on playing.

In about five minutes the door at the back of the room opened, and a man came into the room with a little limp figure in his arms. Another man followed, carrying another child. Then another, and another, and another. They laid the little bodies in a row on the platform beneath the Christmas tree. The children were dead… There were some seventy three of them. I can hardly tell about it or even think about it even today.

The people in the hall were deadly silent, frozen with horror. Then Annie screamed, “Are there any more children dead?” And one of the deputies said “What’s the matter with you? None of these children are yours, are they?” She cried out, tears streaming down her face, “They are all mine—all my children…

They kept bringing the children up the stairs, into the hall, as the people rushed forward in agony and fear to look for their own. Priests arrived and began to pray for the dead. Then Annie went wild and started pummeling the priests and pushed them away from the children, because the same priests had been preaching against the strike. “Don’t let these scab priests touch these children!” she cried. The deputies took her away and locked her up in the courthouse. Then they came for the bodies of the children, took them to the courthouse, and kept them there at night, until they could get undertakers.

The Morgans, Rockefellers, and their ilk who had not gone to war in 1861 were old men now. Their sons were overseeing their mammoth empires that they had acquired as the ruthless Robber Barons while, uncertain and sometimes not quite clear as to exactly what was happening, they doddered around, enjoying their simple hobbies. Old John D, who had shrunk until he resembled a mummy with bright bird-like eyes, had fastened on the innocent enjoyment of giving a single new dime to every person he met.

Morgan, his imperial mein now vanquished by illness, his black eyes rheumy with age, fumbled through the long lines of treasures he had collected from all the earth, a solitary figure moving through medieval armor, Chinese porcelains, rare old books and manuscripts, jewels, and paintings stretching into the distance in the vast white marble palace he had built for them. He died in Rome on the last day of March in 1913.

Carnegie, now “a rosy, twinkling old man,” had apparently forgotten the massacre at Homestead, so great was his delight in his baronial castle at Skibo on the coast of Scotland. He liked to have a bagpiper wake him at eight in the morning by skirling, first from a far distance and then nearer and nearer and nearer the castle. He had his private organist play for him each morning at breakfast and had constructed a miniature waterfall to tinkle outside of his bedroom window. He died in his castle in 1919.

Old John D. outlived them all. Each day he was propped up and taken out to the golf course where a servant was posted to periodically shout at the man whose very glance had once made rivals of quail, “Keep your head down! Keep your head down!” His son, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. liked to think that the old man’s understanding was as mighty as ever, taking pleasure in telling him about the strike of Colorado coal miners in 1914 against the Rockefeller-dominated Colorado Fuel & Iron company. “I know,” he wrote. L.M. Bowers, chairman of the company’s board of directors, “that my father has followed the events of the last few months in connection with the fuel company with unusual interest and satisfaction.”

The events that the old man was following with such unusual interest and satisfaction included the eviction of the strikers, members of the United Mine Workers of America, from their company-owned houses. The miners were living in tents in Ludlow, their colony surrounded by the National Guard. The militiamen occasionally shot into the colony, particularly at night. The women were terribly afraid that some of their children would be killed. They decided to dig a cave inside the largest tent. There they put thirteen children and a pregnant woman.

That night, it was in Easter, 1914, company-employed gunmen and members of the National Guard drenched the strikers’ tents with oil. They ignited them after the miners and their families were asleep. When the miners, their wives, and children ran from the burning tents, they were machine-gunned. Most escaped in the darkness, many were wounded, but the thirteen children and the woman in the cave were killed, some shot to death, others suffocated.

One of the Ludlow strikers, William Snyder, testified at the coroner’s inquest. His eleven-year-old son had been killed, shot through the head.

They set fire to the tent?” Snyder was asked.

Yes, sir. My wife then said, “For God’s sake save my children.”

What did they say to you?

They said, ‘What in the hell are you doing here?’ I told them I was trying to save my children, and they said, “You son of a bitch get out of there and get out damn quick at that.”

My wife was out by that time… I told them to hold on, I had a boy killed in there, and they told me to get out damn quick. I picked up the boy and laid him down outside so I could get better hold of him.

I asked some of these fellows to help me carry him to the depot, and he said “God damn you, aren’t you big enough?” I said, “I can do it.” I took him on my shoulder, and sister on the other arm, and just then one of these militiamen stopped me and said, “God damn you, you son of a bitch, I have a notion to kill you right now.” He said “You red-neck son of a bitch, I have a notion to kill you right now.

Another woman, and five men, all of them strikers, were killed that night in addition to the thirteen children. Perhaps old John D. was never told about it. The son took full responsibility for it, saying it was the unfortunate outcome of a principled fight he was bound to make for the protection of the workingman against the trade unions. The Robber Barons were gone but their sons were following in their footsteps. J.P. Morgan’s son and namesake, who later took a similar stand for the open shop, also proved himself worthy of his father.

But the miners felt differently about the Ludlow Massacre. They erected a monument to it which still stands. Carved in stone are the figures of a miner and his wife. At their feet lies a slain child.

The inscription reads:

Erected by the United Mine Workers of America, to the memory of the men, women and little children who died in freedom’s cause, April 20, 1914.

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