Municipal Government

From Triangle Shirtwaist Fire to Living Wage

April 4, 2011
By Stuart Appelbaum

On behalf of the Jewish Labor Committee, whose roots are anchored here, on this hallowed ground, I say that the 146 innocent garment workers mostly women, mostly Jewish and Italian, mostly immigrant who perished in the Triangle Fire did not die in vain. It took their deaths to bring about meaningful government intervention to regulate business, and to respect the call of workers struggling to secure the benefits of union membership.

Many of our grandparents and great grandparents played a critical role in building a strong and vibrant labor movement with the hope that it would endure and remain a permanent feature of American life. Through their actions and their struggle, our lives, and the lives of all Americans were made better. Today, those hard fought gains are under threat in communities across the United States by those who seek to go back to the time of 1911, when there was little government regulation of business and few unions.

Here in New York, as we push to regulate Wall Street, as we push to establish living wages in subsidized developments, as we push to make lives better for today’s largely immigrant workforce, the same forces the Real Estate Board, the proponents of unregulated markets, the free traders that opposed government regulation of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory a century ago are opposing us now.

Today, as the leader of the Jewish Labor Committee and President of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, I pledge to continue the struggle that the Triangle Fire sparked on this day a century ago.

The most important tribute to Triangle is offered not in words but in deeds: elected officials must ensure that government continues to protect and improve the lives of all working people. That means standing up for a living wage so that countless working New Yorkers no longer feel condemned to poverty, but instead can finally get closer to achieving the kind of economic security they need and deserve.

As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The moral arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.” Brothers and sisters, may we never lose our sense of outrage at injustice around us!
Stuart Appelbaum is President of the Jewish Labor Committee and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU)/UFCW. These remarks were delivered March 25th in NYC at the 100th Anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.

April 3, 2011

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