March 25 marks 100 years since the horrendous fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York City that claimed the lives of 146 garment workers—mostly women and girls with an average age of 19. It was a Saturday; they toiled six days a week for a few dollars in unsafe conditions. Once the fire started, they were trapped inside because fire escape doors and stairwells were locked. Many leaped to their death from windows to escape the flames.
A nascent International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) had been leading walkouts at Triangle and other garment factories, demanding safer conditions and a shorter—52-hour—workweek. Some owners recognized the union, and conditions improved. The Triangle owners did not—hiring thugs to physically abuse the women on the picket line.
“The disaster led to a greater awareness of the terrible conditions many workers endured,” AFT president Randi Weingarten says. “Positive consequences of the fire included new standards for workplace safety, the passage and increased enforcement of labor laws, and the growth of unions as a voice fighting for worker safety. Since the tragedy, the labor movement has pressed for safer working conditions—in the fields, in factories, in mines and in offices—and an end to sweatshops. Yet today, numerous and outrageous attacks on workers’ rights in state after state threaten to take us back to a time when individuals were powerless and hard-working people were denied decent wages and benefits.
“Unions as a collective voice for workers are not only vital to ensure people are fairly compensated for their work. They are also essential to fight for safe working conditions, collaborative efforts to improve quality, dignity on the job, and basic fairness. Just as the Triangle fire 100 years ago solidified support for the ILGWU, these modern-day attacks on unions are re-energizing the American labor movement as we fight for voice, dignity and fairness.”
Read President Obama’s proclamation about the fire. AFL-CIO Now has a special report on the fire. [AFT press release]
March 25, 2011