By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director
Monday the National Consumers League paid tribute to the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire that took place 100 years ago. This Friday, March 25th, is the 100th anniversary of the infamous New York City fire that took the lives of 146 immigrant men and women, some of them as young as 14 and 15 years old.
The fire changed the course of labor history and opened the nation’s eyes to the terrible and abusive working conditions of millions of their fellow citizens. The shocking way the victims died helped to bring about a sweeping series of workplace reforms and fire safety codes that caught on across the country. NCL has a special relationship to the fire because Frances Perkins, who went on to become the first female Secretary of Labor under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was working for NCL in New York City at the time of the fire and witnessed with her own eyes the sight of young women leaping out the building’s upper-story windows. Perkins took her experience to the New York State legislature to bring these reforms to fruition, this fire affirmed her lifetime commitment to bettering conditions for working men and women.
Monday’s symposium – which drew more than 100 attendees – (see the full program) started out with a Senate Resolution, read by a member of New York Senator’s Kirsten Gillibrand’s staff, commemorating the fire and passing unanimously in the Senate. The first panel featured historians and writers who reflected on the working and labor conditions at the time of the fire in New York City. Moderated by the head of the Women’s Bureau at the Department of Labor, panelists included Joe McCartin of Georgetown University, Robyn Muncy of the University of Maryland, and Kirstin Downey, former Washington Post business reporter and author of a wonderful biography of Frances Perkins. Panelists discussed the conditions of immigrants working in factories like Triangle, where, in fact, workers were better off than many sweatshop workers, earning up to $5 a week and getting Sundays off. But the largely young immigrant women had struck the plant the year before the fire and earned better working conditions and higher wages. This was the first major women’s strike in the history of the United States.
The second panel focused on workplace conditions today and was moderated by American Rights at Work’s Kim Freeman Brown. Panelists talked about injuries among hotel workers that render them unable to use one arm or shoulder because of their constant need to lift heavy mattresses. Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs’ Norma Flores described her experience as a farmworker child, spending sometimes 12 hours at a time working under a hot sun, without access to toilet facilities. And Judy Gearhart of the International Labor Rights Fund described working conditions in Bangladesh, where severe fires in factories that have taken many lives.
Before lunch, we watched the film made for this event, TRIANGLE’S ECHOES: The Unfinished Struggle for Worker Protection, Safety and Health and then we heard a sobering address from “Goose” Stewart – a miner who survived the Massey Mine Collapse, which took place less than a year ago and killed 29 of his fellow miners. He brought a tear to many in the packed audience. And we had a rousing lunchtime speech from Cecil Roberts, President of the United Mine Workers, followed by a “Call to Action” as the program was brought to a close.
Co-sponsoring organizations at the event included a cross-section of labor, consumer, civil rights, progressive student, and environmental groups: AFL-CIO; Alliance for Justice; American Rights at Work; BlueGreen Alliance; Change to Win; Coalition of Labor Union Women; Consumer Action; Communications Workers of America; International Labor Rights Forum; Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, Georgetown University; National Consumers League; Public Citizen; Roosevelt Institute Campus Network; Service Employees International Union; United Food and Commercial Workers; UNITE HERE!
Advocates left the event energized to continue the fight for workers’ rights, especially in light of current anti-worker efforts in many parts of the country, keeping the memory of the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire alive, and seeing to it that the men and women who perished in the notorious fire in 1911 didn’t die in vain.