03/24/2011 03:38 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Think Again: Triangle at 100: Back to the Future?

The centennial anniversary of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist fire occurs Friday, March 25. It will be marked with forums, plays (musical and dramatic), academic conferences, and art exhibitions in numerous American cities, as well as documentaries airing on both PBS and HBO.

These events recall the day when, just as work was about to let out, a tremendous fire broke out on the 11th floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company's factory in New York City. One of the exit doors remained locked the entire time and the city's fire department's ladders only reached up to the building's sixth floor, which was 30 feet below the burning embers.

The flames only burned about 30 minutes. But they ended 146 lives -- mostly immigrant teenage girls, almost all Jewish or Italian. Rather than burn to death, more than a third of them died either jumping or falling out of the windows.

Triangle had only recently been a target of a 20,000-person, 13-week general strike by the city's garment workers: the so-called "Uprising of the Twenty Thousand." The workers were demanding higher wages, safer conditions, less brutal hours, and the right to unionize.

The strikers fought off company thugs and corrupt cops with support from fledgling labor organizations, Jewish social service organizations, Lower East Side socialist clubs, women's groups, and the occasional progressive multimillionaire, like the suffragist socialite Alva Belmont. Some 300 companies agreed to settle but Triangle was not one of them.

The following year, as CUNY's Josh Freeman recounts, "a cloakmakers strike brought the 'Protocols of Peace,' an innovative agreement with the employers that solidified the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union and established a Joint Board of Sanitary Control to address the dangerous, unhealthy conditions that permeated the industry."

The strikes, the fire, and the conditions that inspired them led to a new sort of class consciousness among almost everyone who encountered them.

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