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Senator Wagner and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

March 25, 1911

Robert F. Wagner by Steven Polson

March 25 is the anniversary of one of the worst industrial disasters in American history, the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in New York City. On that day, 146 women who labored in the garment industry lost their lives because company managers had locked the emergency exits. The factory occupied the top three floors of a 10-story building, and many of the women died when they jumped from the windows to escape the flames. In response, the state created the New York State Factory Investigating Committee, chaired by Assemblyman (later Governor) Al Smith, and State Senator (later U.S. Senator) Robert F. Wagner.

Born in Germany, Robert Wagner immigrated to New York as a child. He graduated from the City College of New York and got his law degree from New York Law School. Tammany Hall recruited him to run for the state legislature, where his political career was fairly conventional until the Triangle Fire. Wagner and Smith’s committee held 22 public hearings that looked into the abysmal conditions of factory workers. From that investigation, the social worker Frances Perkins observed, “they never recovered.” Shocked by what they found, they introduced and won enactment of 56 bills in the state legislature to improve factory safety standards. Wagner carried his concerns about working conditions to Washington when he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1926.

Even during the prosperous 1920s, Wagner devoted his first Senate speech to unemployment. When the Great Depression broke, Senator Wagner wrote the Emergency Relief and Construction Act of 1932, which for the first time committed the federal government to direct relief for the unemployed through public works projects. After Franklin Roosevelt became president, Wagner introduced many of the New Deal’s major initiatives, including bills creating the National Industrial Recovery Administration and the Works Progress Administration. He is best known as the author of the Social Security Act and also of the Wagner Act that upheld the right of labor to organize and bargain collectively. Among his last accomplishments was the GI Bill of Rights. Throughout the 1930s, Senator Wagner was also an outspoken opponent of Nazi Germany and of other dictatorships. “We in the twentieth century, here in America,” he asserted, “can avoid the onslaught of governments which do too much only by developing a government that does enough.”

In the year 2000, the U.S. Senate agreed to add Robert Wagner’s portrait to those of five other significant senators in the Senate Reception Room. This was a fitting tribute to one of the nation’s most productive senators. Indirectly, it is also a memorial to the victims of the disaster that so profoundly shaped his career. For it was his memories of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire that drove Robert Wagner to devote his legislative career to the plight of working class Americans.