Last Updated on August 28, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1169
Frances Perkins was having tea when she heard the sirens heading toward the Triangle fire; she later recalled that "people had just begun to jump as we got there." Perkins was the future US Secretary of Labor for Roosevelt and the first woman to be appointed to the United States Cabinet. At the time of the Triangle fire, however, she was a young progressive and executive secretary of the Consumers' League, which was dedicated to improving working conditions in factories like the Triangle. Her presence at the fire marked a significant moment in the history of reform:
Her experiences perfectly suited her to help redeem the tragedy of the Triangle fire. That she was there to see this tragedy with her own eyes, to be able to feel it viscerally, is one of history's intriguing strokes of coincidence.
Perkins had previously volunteered for Chicago Commons, investigating factories and garment shops, and was a staunch proponent of organized labor. Interested in the social sciences, she believed that factual investigations into working conditions could drive change in labor laws, and she organized a large study of cellar bakeries in New York as executive secretary of the Consumers' League. After a factory burned down in Newark, "Perkins added fire safety to her list of issues." She was eventually sent to Albany as a lobbyist for the League, pushing a bill that would limit the legal workweek for women and minors to fifty-four hours. The bill had stagnated in the legislature for two years, but Perkins was determined to get it passed.
In 1911, Charles F. Murphy appointed Robert F. Wagner and Alfred E. Smith to run the day-to-day business of Tammany Hall. The Democrats had just won control of Albany, largely because many believed the Republican governor to be too powerful; in a sudden landslide election, Tammany Hall controlled the state government. Wagner and Smith were young and thought to simply be Murphy’s instruments, but the pair surprised everyone: Wagner went on to become a major part of the New Deal, and Smith became a governor who revolutionized New York. Murphy's focus at the time was taking powerful positions away from Republicans, and Wagner and Smith broke Tammany's associations with corruption and dishonest bosses. The appointment of Wagner and Smith marked a shift from the "old ways" of Tammany Hall into a new era of progress and reform.
Frances Perkins met Smith when she was in Albany promoting her fifty-four-hour workweek bill, and he gave her advice on how best to approach it. Perkins believed that Wagner and Smith were interested in the plight of the poor and true supporters of her bill but later found out that they hadn’t protested when it was shut down by Murphy and the "moneyed interests." The pair explained to her that some of the biggest donors to the Democratic campaign were factory owners, who were friends of Murphy's and opposed to Perkins’s bill.
Then came the Triangle fire. Perkins recalled that the immediate reaction of New York reformers was guilt, which quickly hardened into resolve. In the gathering at the Metropolitan Opera House, Rose Schneidermann's speech was angry and emotional, emphatically proclaiming that the only way forward was "a strong working-class movement." While such language had proved divisive during the strike, "in the wake of the fire, the ringing final note of socialism no longer seemed quite as extreme to the capitalist progressives." The audience voted to form a Committee on Safety, which would be sent to Albany to demand change. Perkins was placed on the committee as a lobbyist, and they set out to demand...
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a commission to study factory conditions and recommend new laws. Their approach was to be nonpartisan and "free from the hand of politics," but Smith warned Perkins that this was impossible and that involvement in politics was necessary if they wanted to see laws passed.
Smith and Wagner proposed that the commission would be more successful and convincing if they ran it themselves. Although Perkins was initially skeptical, she realized that it was the most practical way to create real change, as Tammany held the bargaining power in Albany. A new, nine-member commission was established, chaired by Wagner and vice-chaired by Smith, and a law creating the Factory Investigating Commission was passed on June 30th, 1911. The group had power unprecedented in New York history: they could subpoena witnesses and documents, elect their own members, employ experts, and change their own rules. Smith and Wagner had total control and would continue to direct the commission even if Tammany lost control of the government. Through this commission, the pair became "liberal heroes" in New York and crucially allowed Tammany to appeal to the new immigrants, who until this point "had little sense of debt toward Tammany and even less affection."
In comparison to two years before, when Tammany had ordered police officers to harass picket lines and sent thugs after protestors during the shirtwaist strike, they now welcomed volunteers from union groups, and they hired Clara Lemlich as one of ten investigators sent to survey nearly two thousand factories in two months. Mary Dreier was appointed to the commission by the governor, and by the end of the year they had "proposed fifteen new laws covering fire safety, factory inspections, employment rules for women and children, and . . . sanitation in bakeries." Of these, eight were enacted, and the commission expanded their reach to more cities the following year. George Price and Frances Perkins organized visits to plants and mills all over the state to show commissioners the terrible working conditions firsthand. New laws passed in 1913 that were "unmatched to that time in American history," and twenty-five bills were pushed through Albany "entirely recasting the labor law of the nation's largest state." By this time, two years after the Triangle Factory fire, "nearly every deficiency in the Asch building had been addressed," and the state Department of Labor was completely reorganized. Sprinklers were now mandatory in high-rise buildings.
The 1913 election was "a turning point in New York political history," with Tammany winning two-thirds of the seats in both houses of the legislature, and their choice for governor winning by a landslide. Murphy had finally embraced the spirit of reform, running a campaign presenting Tammany as "a true friend of the working class" and giving Wagner the responsibility of drafting the party platform. A year prior, Murphy was still trying to appeal to the "moneyed interests," causing an intentional stalemate in the senate over Frances Perkins's fifty-four-hour workweek bill so that the session would expire. In doing so, he could claim that he had tried to help the working class, blame the Republicans for the bill's failure, and keep donors on his side. However, Big Tim Sullivan, Murphy's right-hand man and Perkins's friend, decided to defy Murphy and voted in favor of the bill. The passing of Perkins's bill and the defeat of Murphy's choice for president by Woodrow Wilson were his "last major stand[s] against change."