108 years after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the struggle of Jewish-American workers offers a stirring radical vision for Jews and non-Jews alike.
Today marks the 108th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which in twenty minutes consumed the lives of 146 people, mostly young immigrant Jewish and Italian women and girls who worked in the New York City factory. The youngest victims, Kate Leone and Rosaria Maltese, were just fourteen years old.
In the wake of what went down as the worst industrial disaster in New York history, labor activists mobilized the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and the wealthier Women’s Trade Union League to win worker protections that we still enjoy to this day. More than a century later, March 25 stands as a pivotal date in the history of feminism and organized labor in America.
Triangle carries a particular significance for Jewish-American radicals. Many of the most prominent leaders of the post-fire mobilization — including the seamstress, lesbian, and feminist socialist Rose Schneiderman — were Jewish-American women.
Today, as the board members and administrators of powerful Jewish institutions marshal support for the Israeli government and other reactionary agendas, the legacy of radical Jews like Schneiderman — who saw the fight against antisemitism and patriarchy as inseparable from the fight against capitalism — offers a stirring alternative vision for Jewish activists and the Left more broadly.
The Triangle Tragedy
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, radical politics permeated Manhattan’s Lower East Side — especially among Eastern European Jews. These nascent Americans came from places with strong radical political currents, where socialism and left ideas were always in the air. (The Jewish Labor Bund — which became the preeminent socialist Jewish group, representing a significant proportion of Jewish workers in Poland, Lithuania, and Russia — was founded about 250 miles from Schneiderman’s birthplace.)
The dire economic straits many found themselves in further nurtured that radicalism. Jewish women immigrants were in a particularly difficult situation: they loved the social freedom that the US offered compared to life in the Russian Empire, but the price of independence was often working in a sweatshop. Jews had fled pogroms in Europe only to find themselves risking their lives in US factories.
Schneiderman’s life was typical in this respect. Born in 1882 in Poland, Schneiderman moved with her family to the Lower East Side in 1890 and found work as a seamstress. Years before the Triangle disaster, she was well aware of the deadly implications of capitalists’ labor abuses, and fought to end them through collective action.
In 1905, she began agitating with the IWLGU, and helped organize a city-wide strike of hat makers; four years later, she participated in the Uprising of the 20,000, which was one of the largest strikes in history, and was led by Clara Lemlich, another Jewish radical who later joined the Communist Party USA.
After the 1905 and 1909 strikes, most factories had settled with the unions. But Triangle refused. Their thousands of peak-season employees were paid $5.50 an hour or less in 2016 figures, and had to work nine hours during the week and another seven on Saturdays. They fired union employees and resisted making any improvements in working conditions.
In the Triangle factory — located just off Washington Square Park, occupying the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of a building that is now part of New York University — workers endured cramped conditions, poor ventilation, and blocked fire exits (which were intended to deter walkouts). Other doors were locked to prevent employee theft; managers would only unlatch them at the end of the shift, checking women’s purses as they left for the day.
Just days before the Triangle disaster, Schneiderman had documented similar conditions at a shop in Newark, where fire escapes were blocked to prevent workers from stealing. There, twenty-five people had perished when the building caught fire. At Triangle, the toll would be well over one hundred.
On March 25, 1911 — which happened to be Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest — five hundred employees reported for work.
At about 4:40 PM, a discard bin that contained two months’ worth of cloth caught fire and quickly spread to the several hundred pounds of cloth surrounding the bin. The alarm sounded. Employees on the eighth floor managed to escape and warn those on the tenth floor. But workers on the ninth floor were trapped. The managers with keys to the locked doors had already fled. Twenty people made it to a flimsy fire escape, but it collapsed, and they fell to their deaths.
The only way out was the elevators. Three times, the elevators ran up to the ninth floor — until the heat buckled their railings. Desperate workers still on the ninth floor pried the elevator shaft doors open and plunged to their deaths, the impact of their bodies on the elevator warping its metal frame.
The sight on the street was equally horrifying: firefighters’ ladders couldn’t reach the ninth floor, so passersby watched as sixty-two people jumped to their deaths. Louis Waldman, a socialist who became a New York assemblyman, recalled the gristly scene: “Occasionally a girl who had hesitated too long was licked by pursuing flames and, screaming with clothing and hair ablaze, plunged like a living torch to the street. Life nets held by the firemen were torn by the impact of the falling bodies.”
In the wake of Triangle, Schneiderman arranged a funeral march for seven unidentified victims; half a million people showed up.
But there was more than just mourning.
At a memorial meeting on April 2, Schneiderman railed against those who would place property rights over workers’ lives. Her speech is worth quoting at length:
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.
This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city. Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred. There are so many of us for one job it matters little if 146 of us are burned to death.
We have tried you citizens; we are trying you now, and you have a couple of dollars for the sorrowing mothers, brothers, and sisters by way of a charity gift. But every time the workers come out in the only way they know to protest against conditions which are unbearable the strong hand of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us.
Public officials have only words of warning to us — warning that we must be intensely peaceable, and they have the workhouse just back of all their warnings. The strong hand of the law beats us back, when we rise, into the conditions that make life unbearable.
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.
Under pressure from activists like Schneiderman, the New York State Legislature created the Factory Investigating Commission, which investigated conditions in over two thousand shops, factories, and tenements over the next four years.
The commission — which included politicians who would go on to help orchestrate the New Deal — was instrumental in drafting new safety laws mandating that factory doors remain unlocked during working hours, that owners install fire alarms and automatic sprinklers, and that workers have access to fire extinguishers. The commission also crafted legislation that required improved eating and toilet facilities for workers and placed limits on the hours women and children were allowed to work.
Altogether, thirty-six pieces of legislation drafted by the commission became law in New York State. These measures were taken as models in many other states, and similar laws were passed at the federal level twenty years later under the New Deal.
The capitalists whose lethal actions had helped spur such legislation got off easy, however. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory’s owners were found not guilty on all charges of neglect. Their only recompense was $75 in damages to each of the victims’ families — a fraction of the $400 per victim that even the insurance company paid.
Jews have a religious concept called tikkun olam, which holds that believers should repair the world and make it a better place. But for the Yiddish-speaking socialists on the Lower East Side, forced to toil for pitiful wages in unsafe conditions, religiosity wasn’t enough to improve their material conditions (and ultimately overthrow capitalism). For that they turned to radical politics, Marxist thought, and union agitation.
That radical egalitarian tradition is worth reclaiming today, when the Sheldon Adelsons and the Haim Sabans demand that American Jews pledge loyalty to the state of Israel and its unending occupation. As we have seen in recent months — from the feeble and shameful response to antisemitism from Israeli politicians and American institutions — this loyalty without reservation impinges on our safety as Jews in America.
And it comes courtesy of the same cohort of capitalists that in 1911 sacrificed 146 people for the sake of profit. Indeed, it is important to recall that the owners of the Triangle factory, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, were Jewish as well. Their loyalties, however, quite clearly did not lie with the Jewish people, but with wealth, property, and the coercive control of women, immigrants, ethnic and racial minorities, and the working class.
Over the last century, Jews have largely moved into the American middle class, and the relationship between our wealthiest members to the Jewish community at large has shifted. In contemporary America, these factory owners sit on the boards of every Jewish communal organization in the country, controlling the funding and priorities of our institutions. They’re instrumental in pushing reactionary policies, including unwavering support for the Israeli government. Their actions are an affront to human dignity and to the Jewish socialists who have long opposed Zionism, seeing it not as a solution to antisemitism but as a bourgeois unwillingness to stand in solidarity with other marginalized groups.
Today, as we honor those who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, thousands of Jews from around the country are descending on Washington, DC to demonstrate against the annual conference of AIPAC, the right-wing Zionist group. These protesters are part of IfNotNow, an organization dedicated to ending American Jewish support for the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
While IfNotNow is not an explicitly anticapitalist organization, the many Jewish socialists in the organization’s ranks see the connections between capitalism, misogyny, and occupation all too clearly.
We are not surprised that Caterpillar, the construction company often targeted by BDS actions, also evades taxes; or that Palestinians who seek to form unions are more harshly suppressed than Jews; or that Donald Trump and Jared Kushner and David Friedman donate to illegal settlements in the West Bank. We recognize that the occupation is most devastating to Palestinian women and children, who cannot travel freely to seek adequate medical attention; and Jewish Israeli women are expected to raise children to serve in the Israeli military.
And we know that there is a different path forward, one that sees the Bernie Sanders campaign as an extension of the left secular Jewish tradition and is animated by the vision of Rose Schneiderman.
We can fight, in Schneiderman’s enduring phrase, for bread and roses:
What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist — the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art. You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.