From the Jewish Women’s Archive:

Approximately 500 workers were sewing shirtwaists at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company’s sweatshop near Washington Square in Manhattan when a fire broke out on March 25, 1911.

The building lacked adequate fire escapes, firefighting equipment was unable to reach the top floors, and—most tragically—exit doors had been locked to prevent unauthorized work breaks. Some women, unable to reach an exit, jumped from ninth- and tenth-floor windows in a vain effort to save themselves. The fire did its work within twenty minutes. In the end, 146 died and many more were injured. Most of the dead were recent immigrant Jewish and Italian women between the ages of 16 and 23.

Just two years before, the Jewish owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company had been among the targets of the strike known as the uprising of the 20,000, which had sought union recognition through the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). Although the strike forced some firms to settle with their workers, Triangle fired many of its union members and remained an anti-union shop.

In the wake of the fire, the Jewish community and leading women in the labor movement sprang into action. The Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL), a cross-class coalition that worked as an ally of the ILGWU, organized a public meeting at the Metropolitan Opera House on April 2. There, Rose Schneiderman, one of the leaders of the 1909 strike, called upon all working people to take action. Three days later, 500,000 people turned out for the funerals of seven unidentified victims of the fire.

Under pressure from the ILGWU, the WTUL, and others, New York State established a Committee on Safety in the wake of the fire. In addition, the state legislature set up a Factory Investigating Committee, which drafted new legislation designed to protect workers. Their recommendations included automatic sprinkler systems and occupancy limits tied to the dimensions of exit staircases. 36 labor and safety laws were passed in the three years after the fire, thanks to the agitation of working people.

Even as these regulations went into effect, the site of the Triangle fire remained a rallying point for labor organizing. Some survivors, galvanized by their experience, went on to lifetimes of labor activism. Frances Perkins, who witnessed the fire, later became Secretary of Labor under Franklin Roosevelt. She said that the Triangle Fire was what motivated her to devote her career to helping workers. The last survivor of the fire, Rose Rosenfeld Freedman, died in 2001 at age 107.

Rose Schneiderman, a prominent United States labor union leader, socialist, organizer and trade unionist, founded the Jewish Socialist United Cloth Hat and Cap Makers’ Union in 1903. This was the catalyst of her long fiery pursuit of justice. She later became president of the Women’s Trade Union League. During a memorial meeting held in the Metropolitan Opera House less than a month after the fire, she gave this speech:

I would be a traitor to those poor burned bodies, if I were to come 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 fire.

This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in this 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 140-odd 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 and 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 for us—warning that we must be intensely orderly and 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—back 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 experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. And the only way is through a strong working-class movement.

According to one historical source, this speech from Schneiderman came as tensions were mounting in the room between working class women who believed in class solidarity as the solution, and middle-upper class women who sought reform through methods like creating a bureau of fire prevention.