NEW YORK (March 25) – Thousands of New Yorkers marked the 100th anniversary of the worst industrial accident in city history – the deadly Triangle Shirtwaist fire – with a ceremony at the site where 146 garment workers died.
The 100th anniversary has prompted more media attention this year than perhaps previous ones, along with more prominent speakers like U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and Sen. Charles Schumer.
But it has been the thousands of everyday New Yorkers, including the family members of victims and survivors, that have kept alive the memory and legacy of the Triangle workers.
“It’s an historical day, a sentimental day for me,” said Steve Byer. “I was raised in the garment industry and with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. I’ve been alive for 58 years and coming to these for 50 years.”
Byer credited the labor movement for winning job safety and workers’ rights laws. “If it wasn’t for this a lot of fire laws and labor laws would not have been passed,” he said.
The victims of the Triangle fire were mainly young immigrant women. Many of them jumped to their deaths to escape the flames because the doors had been locked by factory management. Some workers attempted to douse the flames, only to find that the water supply for the fire hoses had been cut off.
The fire galvanized the labor movement and prompted many improvements in fire safety, such as laws mandating fire drills, and labor law reform.
One attendee, Rita, said she has been coming to the site of the factory every year since moving to New York in 1992. “I remember when i was 10 years old growing up in Iowa, I saw a TV show about this fire,” she said. “I come by every year after the ceremony to see the carnations. So i wanted to come today to pay tribute. I took the day off work. It’s a day we should all remember. It’s brought a lot of changes, but at a horrible cost for the victims and their families.”
A militant labor organizer of the time, Clara Lemlich, had led a strike of 400 of her coworkers at Triangle just two years before the fire in 1909. While still recovering from a severe beating by management thugs, Lemlich, a Communist, delivered a rousing speech at a rally a few weeks later that helped convince garment workers across the city to take part in a general strike.
Within days, 20,000 walked off the job, demanding a 20 percent raise, a 52-hour workweek, overtime pay, and collective bargaining rights. They also called on city leaders to institute and enforce better workplace health and safety standards.
“I was brought up knowing about the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. My father was a garment worker, my father-in-law was a pattern maker. I know they would have wanted to be here today so I showed up. I’m not in a union but I support unions. They gave us the weekend and put bread and food on our table,” said David Schaeffer.
The Triangle commemoration brought yesterdays struggles in today’s context, joining union, women and immigrant rights’ issues together in a common bond.
“One hundred years ago immigrant workers spoke Yiddish, Russian and Italian. Today they speak Chinese and Spanish,” said Laborers Local 79 business manager John Delgado in introducing Wilfredo, an immigrant worker whose “story needs to be told.”
“I came here to work and got a job. I felt fortunate. But 100 years after this terrible even where so many died, some things have not changed. I was not paid overtime, I have no benefits, at work doors are locked with padlocks, and there are no bathrooms. Workers then needed a union and still need unions,” Wilfredo said.
George Gresham, president of 1199SEIU, pointed to economic forces still at work then and now.
“It’s not enough to recognize that it was corporate greed that took the lives of these women and men 100 years ago, when it is still corporate greed that is the problem today,” he said.
New York Sen. Schumer fired up the crowd when he said, “Today, some on the far right want to rob workers of their hard-earned collective bargaining rights. They seek to fray the social safety net under the false pretense of fiscal austerity.
Today, ladies and gentlemen, those hard gains are under threat across the United States by those who want to drag our nation back to 1911.”
The commemoration provided an opportunity to pass on the labor history of yesterday and issues of today to the next generation. Students from Canada buddied up with their peers from Queen’s PS 65 for a field trip to the site.
“We learned about the history of working in a factory, and then we came here to New York to look at [the Triangle factory] on the 100th anniversary and how it came to be that now we have Saturdays and Sundays off,” said one of the students.
Photo: (Gabe Falsetta/PW)