Municipal Government

Forgotten Lessons of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

April 5, 2011
By Bendix Anderson

Thousands gathered in Manhattan March 25 to remember a horrific fire that killed 146 young women. “Let us remember the dead, and fight like hell for the living,” said Hilda Solis, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor.

Local and national leaders joined workers from New York’s most active public and private sector unions at the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, which burned on March 25, 1911. They honored the victims of the fire and demanded safe workplaces and the right of workers to organize today. One hundred years ago, fire tore through the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Smoke and flames surprised hundreds of garment workers. The stairway doors were locked and, after the elevator stopped running, they were trapped 146 died in the blaze.

Two years before, the young workers at Triangle had demonstrated for better workplace conditions. The held a short walkout that helped spark the first large scale strikes in the country by female workers. But factory owners did not meet the workers demands, including demands for fire safety. Historians speculate that the factory doors may have been locked to keep union organizers out.

In the outrage after the fire, New York State passed legislation that became the basis for national workplace safety laws. Workers across the country also won the right to unionize and bargain collectively for fair pay and safer workplaces. “Unions protect the rights of workers that’s a lesson that this country had to learn the hard way,” said Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers.

However, it seems as if much of the country has forgotten the fire. Public sector workers in Wisconsin have been stripped of their right to collectively bargain. Several other states have proposed similar legislation. At same time, some employers flaunt workplace safety laws. Last year alone, numerous safety violations contributed to both the BP oil spill and the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster in West Virginia.

“Those laws and those right have saved lives,” said U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer. “But today those rights are under attack by those who want to drag our nation back to 1911.”

Many demonstrators held signs marked with the names of the victims of the Triangle fire. The original building that held the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory stood overlooking the crowd. The high windows were marked with banners where, a century before, dozen of young workers jumped to their deaths to escape the flames.

April 3, 2011

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