Today is the 105th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company was a typical Manhattan sweatshop. The owners subcontracted most of the work to people who hired employees, most of them poorly educated immigrant women and children, and paid them whatever rates they wanted, which were extremely low.
On Sunday afternoon, March 25, a fire broke out in the building. As the fire spread, the terrified workers struggled to escape, only to find that exits had been locked shut to keep the employees working. Desperately frightened workers massed at the windows hoping to be rescued by fire personnel, only to learn that the ladders were several stories too short to reach them. With the flames closing in behind them, many jumped to their deaths rather than suffer an incineration from the spreading inferno. 146 died by the time the fire was brought under control.
In the period after the fire, labor unions such as the International Ladies Garment Workers Union provided financial relief and support to the fire victims and pushed for legal reform. The New York legislature appointed State Senator Robert Wagner and Assemblyman Al Smith to head a commission to investigate conditions in the sweatshops of New York. After a series of widely publicized investigations, the Commission issued a groundbreaking report that led to the enactment of the first comprehensive labor laws in the United States. Al Smith was subsequently elected governor and ran for President of the United States in 1928. As governor he was one of the greatest reformers in American history and worked tirelessly to protect the types of workers who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.