The prevailing economic philosophy of the time was laissez-faire. Essentially, this meant that governmental authorities should not interfere in private business. Decisions relating to working hours, working conditions, health, and safety were entirely a matter between employer and employee. This was the private business of individuals, not a public matter for the state.
In practice, this meant that workers often toiled in unimaginably dangerous conditions at serious risk of death or serious injury. Employers were not legally required to provide basic safety standards such as sprinkler systems, adequate ventilation, or fire escapes. It was this system of legalized negligence that led to the appalling loss of life in the Triangle disaster.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, there was a widespread sense among the general public that something needed to be done. The Triangle fire alerted people to a side of life they had either previously ignored or never even knew existed. In some respects, what the fire did for the condition of workers was what Upton Sinclair's The Jungle did for food safety. The lid had been ripped right off a previously hidden way of life, revealing a dark underbelly of poverty, callousness, and rampant exploitation.
In examining the impact of the fire, Von Drehle emphasizes both the operation and necessity of political power to effect radical social change. Campaigners for improved worker safety undoubtedly had a strong moral case, but Von Drehle is at pains to point out that, in order to get things done within the American political system, you need power and influence.
In the case of the Triangle fire, that power was provided by the notoriously corrupt Tammany Hall political machine of New York. Boss Charles F. Murphy had previously taken the side of management in labor disputes. However, with labor militancy on the rise and New York's immigrant population continuing to grow dramatically, Murphy cynically realized that there were votes in labor reform.
It was this cynicism that led to the establishment of the Factory Investigation Commission, led by ambitious Tammany lawmakers Alfred E. Smith (future Governor of New York and Democratic presidential candidate) and Robert F. Wagner (future US Senator and sponsor of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, more commonly known as the Wagner Act).
We can see a direct link between the Triangle disaster and the eventual passing of comprehensive federal labor reform legislation. What we also see, however, is another impact the fire had on society and, arguably, the most important one at that: a recognition of the importance of labor unions in protecting and defending workers' rights. More and more workers came to join unions, increasing both their numerical and political strength. By organizing, influencing, and exercising influence at both a state and federal level, labor unions were effectively beating private business at their own game. For the first time, labor was now a serious political power, one that employers could no longer afford to ignore. This, more than anything else, is the greatest single legacy of that terrible day in 1911.