Wednesday, March 23, 2011

100 Year Anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

Bodies of Some Who Jumped
 March 25, 2011 marks 100 years since 146 young immigrants, mostly girls and women of European-Jewish origin, jumped to their deaths or burned to death at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City. All of the dead were ages 16-23. The factory occupied the eighth through tenth floors of the building, too high for the ladders of the fire-fighters to reach. Most of the dead worked on the ninth floor. A bookkeeper had warned the managers, who worked on the tenth floor, of the danger. They were able to escape via the roof. Those on the eighth floor could head down a stairway that proved to be inaccessible to those above. Women could not access the fire escape because they were locked in. The rationale for this was that it prevented workers from taking unnecessary breaks and pilfering materials!

Union Mourners
 As a result of the fire deaths, the factory owners were charged with manslaughter but the jury, which deliberated for less than two hours, found them not guilty. Twenty-three individual suits were filed by family members of the dead. In the end, the families were awarded just 75 dollars per life lost. After the incident, the Triangle Waist Company fell into financial decline and eventually locked its doors for good.

The movement to protect workers spread like wildfire after that disaster. Trade unions formed and membership in them grew to unprecedented levels. This union movement peaked during the 1940's, an era when strikes protesting working conditions closed down both factories and entire cities. In the US in 1945, 35.5% of workers were represented by unions. Since that time membership has steadily declined along with wages and protections.

Today working people are facing a concerted right-wing effort to drive the nail into the coffin of those hard-won rights and protections. Many, like the Triangle workers who gave their their lives. The sacrifice of so many must not be forgotten. It's a struggle as crucial and relevant today as it was 100 years ago.