In an op-ed published in the Washington Post, U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) Secretary Hilda Solis reflects on the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that claimed the lives of 146 women and children in New York City, its effect on the labor movement and why the need for unions is just as important today.
“The sewing factory employed more than 500 people, who worked long hours for low wages, in wretched and unsanitary conditions,” wrote Sec. Solis. “The factory owners had locked the fire-escape doors. The seamstresses were trapped when fire raced through the sweatshop just before closing on March 25, 1911. In less than 20 minutes, 146 people, mostly Italian and Jewish immigrant women and girls, were dead.”
Solis recalls the horrifying tales from former Labor Secretary Francis Perkins who witnessed the fire and described in her later lectures the scene as she watched many of the young women and children jump to their deaths. Solis says it was that very moment that galvanized Perkins to spend the remaining part of her life fighting for workers’ rights.
“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,” wrote Solis. “Today, workers and their allies are being met with that same kind of opposition. In states nationwide, working people are protesting the actions to strip them of collective bargaining. The Triangle fire and the Upper Big Branch explosion a century later make clear to me that workers want and need that voice — about wages and benefits, yes, but about more, too.
“Collective bargaining still means a seat at the table to discuss issues such as working conditions, workplace safety and workplace innovation, empowering individuals to do the best job they can. And it means dignity and a chance for Americans to earn a better life, whether they work in sewing factories or mines, build tall buildings or care for our neighbors, teach our children, or run into burning buildings when others run out of them.”
DOL is marking the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire with an online tour filled with pictures and audio descriptions of the event. Users can also view the tour on their mobile device.