Labor Gathers to Remember the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

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On March 24, New York City union members and supporters commemorate the 105th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in which 146 garment works perished.

By BARBARA TERRELONGE

Too often we suffer from historic amnesia, forgetting how we won the workplace protections we enjoy today.

That’s why events like the commemoration of the 105th anniversary of the Triangle factory fire commemorated on March 24 are so important.

At the same time, our remembrance of the fire is also a reminder that we continue to face workplace deaths — and that parallels exist between our challenges and those of workers more than 100 years ago.

The Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in 1911 was the worst industrial disaster in New York City. One hundred and forty six garment workers died in the fire. Most of the workers — 123  of the 146 who died in the blaze — were Jewish and Italian immigrant women.

The fire was a scandal. The workers were trapped inside the building because the factory bosses kept the exit doors locked, supposedly to prevent theft.

As a result of the fire, New York approved workplace safety legislation, which was backed by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. The ILGWU continued fighting for sweatshop protections in the ensuing years.

The Triangle Waist Co. factory was situated near Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. The factory occupied the eighth, ninth and tenth floors of a 10-story building. The garment workers, who earned $7 to $12 a week, made women’s blouses called “shirtwaists.”

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Three workers gather near the building that housed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.

The fire started at 4:45 p.m. on a Saturday as the workday was closing. A burning cigarette butt, the engines powering the sewing machines and arson were identified as possible causes.

Twenty workers died when the exterior fire escape collapsed.

Sixty-two perished when they jumped or fell out of windows. Others died as they tried to escape through the elevator shaft, and many trapped in the building were engulfed in flames.

A man and woman kissed before they jumped out of a window.

The company’s owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, avoided death by going to the roof of the building. They were later charged with manslaughter but acquitted. As a result of a civil lawsuit, the plaintiffs were awarded $75 for each deceased victim.

How are we to view the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire today? A number of thoughts come to mind.

Our first concern, of course, is that workplace deaths continue to be an issue.

In 2015, 4,836 people died of workplace injuries, up from 4,585 in 2013. Of those workers who died in 2015, 903 were Latinos, and two-thirds of them were immigrants. Non-Hispanic African American workers accounted for 495 of the victims.

Most workplace deaths are preventable, according to the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health. The top incidences of avoidable injuries and deaths include slipping and tripping, falling from heights, machine entanglement, vehicle crashes and on-the-job violence.
Already, the Trump administration is tarting to roll back worker protections. This is a time to be especially vigilant.

Unions and safety advocates must step up their efforts to monitor workplaces and push for better protections.

Gutting workplace safety rules serves the interests of the 1 percent, the owners and top managers of workplaces, as that gives them greater flexibility to run their businesses as they please and to save on the costs of regulations.

Their growing power over recent decades has coincided with the decline of labor unions and rising inequality. Ultimately, it is up to us to become stronger in the workplace and in the political arena to turn back the rise in workplace deaths.

Barbara Terrelonge is the Organizing Director of District Council 37.

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