Friday, March 25, 2011

Remember the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

March 25, 2011 is the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, deadliest industrial disaster in the history of the city of New York.
Many of the Triangle factory workers were women, some as young as 14 years old. They were, for the most part, recent Italian and European Jewish immigrants who had come to the United States with their families to seek a better life. Instead, they faced lives of grinding poverty and horrifying working conditions. As recent immigrants struggling with a new language and culture, the working poor were ready victims for the factory owners. For these workers, speaking out could end with the loss of desperately needed jobs, a prospect that forced them to endure personal indignities and severe exploitation. Some turned to labor unions to speak for them; many more struggled alone. The Triangle Factory was a non-union shop, although some of its workers had joined the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union.
Doug Blanchard of Counterlight's Peculiars has a thoughtful post up with a series of photos. He writes,
As the right to bargain collectively is being effectively repealed in the United States, the memory of the Triangle Fire takes on a new dimension of meaning and pathos. Frances Perkins, the first Secretary of Labor, and a witness to the fire, always said that the New Deal began in the Triangle Fire. This catastrophe propelled the organization of wage earners for their safety as well as for better wages. Political leadership in New York City and state began taking a serious look at the issue of worker safety in the workplace for the first time.

All that was fought for in the fire's wake is now under threat of repeal. We forget that so many things that we take for granted in our jobs, like our safety in the workplace and workman's comp, were not the free gift of benevolent corporate autocrats, but had to be fought for over decades, and sometimes after terrible disasters like the Triangle Fire.

Democracy Now! has devoted today's broadcast to the fire and its impact on labor relations today.

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