107 Years ago, The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Set the Stage for Comprehensive Labor Reform

By Evan Henerson

Every March 25, organized labor observes a grisly anniversary that lit the torch for a better life for all working men and women. The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 claimed the lives of 146 workers, many of them young immigrant women who were trapped in the top three floors of the New York factory. The owners had locked the fire escape exit doors to keep the workers from taking breaks or stealing supplies. Many of the workers jumped to their deaths. Others burned or asphyxiated to death.

In the days and months following the tragedy, the condition of low income workers drew national attention, activists and protesters sprang into action and ultimately American workers gained comprehensive protections they had not previously enjoyed.

Shirtwaist makers, just by way of example, earned $6 per week, for seven days of work from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. with a 30 minute lunch break. They often had to provide their own needles, thread and sewing machines. They had to request a bathroom key from a foreman and leave the building to use the restroom.

From the AFL-CIO’s blog:

“The shirtwaist makers’ story was so compelling because it brought attention to the events leading up to the fire. After the fire, their story inspired hundreds of activists across the state and the nation to push for fundamental reforms. For some, such as Frances Perkins, who stood helpless watching the factory burn, the tragedy inspired a lifetime of advocacy for workers’ rights. She later became secretary of labor under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.”

The tragedy forced the state of New York to open up the most comprehensive investigation into the conditions of more than 2,000 factories. The International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) led the charge.

More from the AFL-CIO blog:

“Three months later, after pressure from activists, New York’s governor signed a law creating the Factory Investigating Commission, which had unprecedented powers. The commission investigated nearly 2,000 factories in dozens of industries and, with the help of such workers’ rights advocates as Frances Perkins, enacted eight laws covering fire safety, factory inspections and sanitation and employment rules for women and children. The following year, they pushed for 25 more laws—entirely rewriting New York State’s labor laws and creating a State Department of Labor to enforce the laws.”

Writing in anticipation of the 103rd year anniversary in 2014, the Huffington Post’s Keith Mestrich said that the best way to avoid safety problems and exploitation to begin with “We can start by reinvigorating the role of unions. While unions continue to do everything they can to curb these abuses, the proportion of the workforce that is unionized has eroded dramatically since its peak in the 1950s. To ensure both safety and fairness on the job, workers need to join together on the job to improve their working conditions.”

On Friday, at 11:30 a.m., there will be a remembrance event at the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and Washington Place & Greene Street in New York City. To learn more, click here.

Read more from the Huffington Post and the AFL-CIO blog.

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