This week marks the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. A documentary on HBO tonight will remember the event, where 146 garment workers died in a fire at their factory. The managers of the factory had locked the doors to the exits, a typical tactic to force long workdays in a time before laws outlawing the practice. The Triangle Fire led directly to worker safety laws and the growth of the ILGWU garment worker’s union.
I walked by the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory completely by accident one day in New York. It’s on the campus of NYU, and it blends into the campus pretty seamlessly at this point. Only a small plaque denotes the site. But you can stand on the spot on the sidewalk where women workers jumped to their death rather than be consumed by the flames.
A hundred years later, the struggle for rights in the workplace haven’t changed all that much. The circumstances are different; actual locking of doors to prevent employees from leaving their shifts isn’t a regular occurrence in America. But for a long time, management has attempted to break worker solidarity, to take away whatever leverage workers may have to improve their conditions and to reduce the influence of workers to a time before the Triangle Fire. This is manifested in one of the longest periods of stagnant wages in US history, to use just one example.
The Triangle factory owners were vehemently anti-union. They got the police to arrest their striking workers. They hired thugs to beat up protesters on the picket line. They resisted accountability for safety during a 13-week strike two years before the fire, and resisted accountability for the fire long afterwards. They even got away with little more than a small fine in the aftermath.
But the cause, and worker solidarity, endured. The ILGWU successfully pushed for legislation that would protect sweatshop workers in the years to come. Frances Perkins, FDR’s Labor Secretary, called it the start of the New Deal. And the cause endures to this day. People are still struggling for respect and dignity in the workplace. People are still fighting for the right to organize. And in some ways, this struggle faces more pitfalls than ever.
But the events of the past couple months, in Wisconsin and Indiana and Michigan and across the country, shows a yearning for a country with a strong middle class, backed by worker power. This is a perfect time to remember the history of the Triangle Fire, and what it spurred in terms of labor reform. This blow-by-blow account is a good place to start for knowledge of the event. On Friday, the 100th anniversary, as many as 10,000 people will gather outside the factory site for a remembrance. I wish I could be there.