Worker's Rights: 100 Years After the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

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On March 25, 1911 a fire broke out on the eighth and ninth floors of the Asch Building in New York City, home to the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. Workers, primarily young Italian and Jewish women who recently arrived in America, tried to flee the smoke and flames. Instead they were blocked by locked doors or emergency exits that opened into the room (and the crowd) rather than out of it.

Those who logically turned to the fire escape were killed when it collapsed, plunging women to their deaths on the sidewalk below. The fire department sent a truck with its tallest ladder, but the ladder reached only to the sixth floor, leaving horrified fire fighters and pedestrians to watch as women leaped to their deaths in an effort to escape the conflagration. In thirty minutes, 146 people were dead, some burned beyond recognition.

This is a tragedy that could have been avoided. In late 1909, female garment workers with nothing to lose and everything to gain began a spontaneous strike against three shirtwaist manufacturers, including the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. One of the manufacturers in question settled with the strikers. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company did not.

In November 1909, these same women were joined by thousands of other garment workers and their allies in a strike for better working conditions. Known as Uprising of the 20,000, they struggled against often violent suppression from "the manufacturers, the police, and the courts:"

[The manufacturers] hired thugs and prostitutes to abuse strikers, often with aid from policemen who then arrested strikers on trumped-up charges of assault. In court, strikers faced hostile magistrates who upbraided the young women (“You are striking against God and nature,” scolded one enraged judge), fined them, and, in some cases, sentenced them to the workhouse. In an attempt to curb abuses, the fledgling Local 25 of the ILGWU, which represented shirtwaist makers, asked the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) (established by upper-class suffragists in 1904 to promote the welfare of working women) to monitor the picket lines. After police arrested Mary Dreier, head of the WTUL, for allegedly harassing a scab, strikers won the sympathy of a previously indifferent public. The WTUL proved a valuable ally; its members walked the picket lines, raised funds, and pleaded the strikers’ case to the general public.

As many as 30,000 are estimated to have marched, picketed, and otherwise supported the strikers. At least 70% of them were women, standing up for themselves and the right to a decent quality of life. For eleven weeks, these brave women and men shut down the shirtwaist industry.

When the strike ended in February 1910, 339 out of 353 member firms of the Associated Waist and Dress Manufacturers association had granted workers contracts meeting most of their demands, including: "a fifty-two hour week, at least four holidays with pay per year, no discrimination against union loyalists, provision of tools and materials without fee, equal division of work during slack seasons, and negotiation of wages with employees." The strike also led male union leaders to accept women as union activists, and strengthened women's participation in unions for years to come.

However, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company was once again not one of the companies that settled. So when the fire broke out a year later, governments finally realized that they had to stop punishing workers and instead ensure their safety. A new PBS documentary on the fire, reviewed by Jane Eisner in The Forward, quotes labor leader Samuel Gompers: “Women had to burn first in order for this to happen." That's the legacy we need to keep in mind today.

In the US, Republican legislators are ignoring our history and working at breakneck speed to destroy unions and hand back all of the power to corporations. JennaHatfield has an important post on how the current attack on public service unions undermines the achievements of working people and urges us to "pay attention."

The underlying conditions may be different, but these are, in many ways, the same ludicrous charges that were lobbed against the amazing strikers in 1910. Unions in general have been weakened in the past 30 years and the consequences are depressing. It is estimated that 50% of clothing manufacturers in the US are sweatshops, and that the majority of workers toiling in illegal conditions in US garment factories are women of color. It is not just the garment industry. Many immigrants in the US continue to labor under outrageous and dangerous conditions that should not be tolerated in the food industry. Pay attention.

While Americans do the hard work of dismantling workers' rights, women across the globe are struggling for a decent living and safe working conditions. International Women's Day is March 8. This year's theme is creating a pathway to decent work for women through equal access to science and technology education. While this is an exciting long-term goal, we also need to address the needs of exploited workers now. Many women abroad face serious consequences for attempts to unionize.

One hundred years after the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, profiteering forces still want to trample on workers. The big events planned to commemorate the event mean nothing if we don't learn from them. We can't go back in history in the US and we need to stop leaving behind women's and worker's rights elsewhere. “Women had to burn first" to get access to decent standards. We don't need it to happen again here or continue to let it happen in other countries. Pay attention.

Suzanne also blogs at CUSS and Other Rants and is the author of Off the Beaten (Subway) Track.

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