Today is the 101st anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. On Friday I attended the annual commemoration event sponsored by Workers United. Today the honoring of the dead continues with CHALK; a public art project to honor the victims of the fire. Volunteers will inscribe in chalk the names and ages of the victims in front of their former homes. Most of the victims lived in Manhattan, but Brooklyn lost a few of its own daughters in the historic fire and their names will be written on the sidewalks of our streets. If you come upon one today; please pause and pay your respects.
The Past: On Saturday, March 25, 1911 a fast-moving fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. The factory occupied the top 3 floors of the 10 story Asch Building located in New York City’s Greenwich Village.
The factory employed nearly 500 people to make women’s blouses; called a shirtwaist at that time. The workers were mostly young women; immigrants; from places like Russia, Italy, Austria and Romania.
Tragically, 146 people died in the fire. They died because doors were locked or awkwardly opened inward. They died because; elevators and the fire escape were poorly maintained. They died because the fire ladders were to short and the safety nets did not hold. They died because profits came before people. They died and America failed on that day.
The Present: The horror of what occurred 101 years ago is remembered today as the pivotal moment in the struggle for workers’ rights and the growth of labor unions. Additionally, many of the laws regarding factory safety, fire safety, and building construction in New York were initiated in response to the findings of the Factory Investigation Commission that convened in the aftermath of the fire.
There has been a lot of progress, but unsafe conditions and unjust practices continue in America and in other parts of the world. Just last year, 29 workers were killed and many more were injured in a garment factory fire in Bangladesh. The stairwells and exits were locked.
At this year’s commemoration ceremony, and as is usual during these types of events, there were many speeches given by politicians and union leaders; yet the most affecting speech was from a worker. She gave a firsthand account of her employment at a linen laundry located on Long Island. Through a translator, she spoke of long hours of grueling work without opportunities for bathroom breaks or rest periods. She spoke of unreasonable productivity quotas; requiring each worker to process 100 or more pounds of laundry in a single shift. It was common for workers to regularly put in extra hours just to keep up and keep employed, yet they were not paid for the extra hours. She told of how attempts to confront management were met with harassment, suspensions or termination. She no longer works there, but is committed to continue the fight to improve conditions. Her pledge was met with cheers and applause from the crowd.
The Future: There had been a lull and general complacency regarding the issues of workers’ rights. A reexamination of the challenges facing workers, in America and abroad is experiencing resurgence. The use of social media has spread word of the struggles and efforts of workers. As an example, the struggles of the Egyptian labor movement to energize and propel that country’s democratic movement was followed by millions; aided by YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. The same can be said of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Also, a positive announcement was made at the commemoration event. Philip Van Heusen (PVH), (parent company of Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Van Heusen, IZOD, ARROW, and Bass) has signed an agreement to underwrite a 2 year program that will initiate reforms in the garment industry in Bangladesh. The program will impact building regulations, fire safety standards and create review committees, health and safety training programs and worker complaint processes. It is a good first step, but it won’t come to fruition unless at least 2 other large brands sign on-board to participate in this initiative. Some of the brands that should/could participate include: GAP, Wrangler Jeans, JC Penny, Target, Abercrombie & Fitch and Osh Kosh B’Gosh.
I’m hoping and praying that these companies step up and do the right thing. In support of this initiative, I have signed the petition sponsored by the Labor Rights Organization; to encourage other apparel companies to join with PVH. I hope you will consider taking action to ensure that the Triangle tragedy and the saddening current events become a thing of the distant past. Click HERE to sign the petition.