Today is the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.
The story is familiar, and has been covered well many places. We all know how at quitting time, Saturday March the 25th, 1911, a fire started on the 8th floor of the Asch Building (29 Washington Place in Greenwich Village, now known as the Brown Building and part of NYU). We know that nearly a hundred and fifty workers, mostly women and children, died in the fire, either of burns or falls.
We know that some of the exit doors were chained shut by management. We know that the fire escape was only 17½ inches wide and tore away from the wall. We have heard how the rooms were overcrowded and filled with flammable materials. We have heard of the heroism and the horror.
But perhaps less well-known is that the Triangle Shirtwaist Company had successfully resisted unionization of its workers two years before.
One of the people on the sidewalk who witnessed the fire was Frances Perkins.
In less than 20 minutes, 146 people, mostly Italian and Jewish immigrant women and girls, were dead. The last six victims were officially identified just a few weeks ago. Triangle outraged the public and offered a grisly example of how powerless workers were without collective bargaining, because unionized garment workers received better pay and had safer conditions. And it galvanized Frances Perkins.
Twenty-two years later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed her secretary of labor, the first woman to serve as a Cabinet secretary. During her 12-year tenure, she directed the formulation and implementation of the Social Security Act, one of the most important pieces of social legislation in our history. Among other extraordinary accomplishments, she helped create unemployment insurance, the minimum wage, and the legislation that guarantees the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively. She also established the department’s Labor Standards Bureau, a precursor to what is now the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Perkins clearly had the Triangle victims in mind as she weaved the nation’s social safety net.
Now, as collective bargaining rights are being destroyed by executive fiat all across America, it is well to remember what those rights cost, and what losing them may well cost again.