One of the greatest industrial tragedies in U.S. history occurred on March 25, 1911, when 146 workers, mostly young immigrant women, died in a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist company in New York City. The victims had been trapped by blocked exit doors and faulty fire escapes. The aftermath of the catastrophe brought grief and recriminations. Protest rallies and memorial meetings were held throughout the city. During one meeting at the Metropolitan Opera House, tension broke out between the working-class Lower East Siders who filled the galleries (and saw class solidarity as the ultimate solution to the problems of industrial safety) and the middle- and upper-class women in the boxes who sought reforms like creation of a bureau of fire prevention. The meeting would have broken up in disorder if not for a stirring speech by Rose Schneiderman, a Polish-born former hat worker who had once led a strike at the Triangle factory. Although she barely spoke above a whisper, Schneiderman held the audience spellbound.
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.