The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: A Lasting Legacy, 100 Years Later

A century after the deadliest factory fire in New York City history, the lessons for reform still hold true

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U.S. National Archive/AP

The Triangle factory fire claimed 146 lives and emboldened the call for workers' rights.

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Murphy created a powerful Factory Investigating Commission, led by two bright, young Tammany lawmakers: Robert F. Wagner and Alfred E. Smith. Over the next three years, the commission proposed and passed the most progressive agenda of workplace reforms the country had ever seen. Smith rode that agenda to four popular and effective terms as New York governor and in 1928 won his party's presidential nomination. Four years later, running on the same platform — and calling it the New Deal — Franklin D. Roosevelt reached the White House. FDR's right-hand man in the Senate was none other than Tammany's Bob Wagner.

The garment workers won safer factories and shorter hours not by dying but by organizing, by sticking together and building their strength. They also knew when to compromise, even with a calculating pragmatist like Charlie Murphy. Reform, Murphy came to believe, "made us many votes."

Such pragmatism drives blogging purists mad, but it remains the key to lasting influence in the U.S. Whether you're a union protester in the Madison statehouse or Wisconsin's union-busting Governor Scott Walker, your cause ultimately depends on your ability to win the next election.

At a ceremony on March 25, the names of all the victims of the Triangle fire were to be read for the first time, thanks to genealogist Michael Hirsch, who unearthed the names of the six unidentified victims. That's a fit and proper tribute. Their dreams — of safer workplaces, free of harassment and exploitation — are more real for us than they might have imagined on that doomed Saturday.

Von Drehle is the author of Triangle: The Fire That Changed America

This article originally appeared in the April 4, 2011 issue of TIME.

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