Remembering the Triangle Fire

Richard Greenwald

New York City firemen look down a hole in the sidewalk, searching for victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire, which began on March 25, 1911. Seamstresses jumped from the building to avoid being burned alive.

At 4 p.m. today, we should pause and remember everyone who has died in the struggle for better working conditions.

The 146 workers who died exactly 99 years ago at a Greenwich Village (NYC) garment factory were just living their lives. They didn’t ask to be martyrs for the cause. But the Triangle Fire had a profound impact on U.S. politics and the labor movement.

Sadly, the fire is almost forgotten by the general public. Yet it is one of those rare moments in time when tragedy creates change. Triangle was a notorious factory, antiunion and offering workers nothing but low wages and poor conditions. But it was also one of the largest ladies garment manufacturers in the U.S. at that time. Its size allowed it to resist positive changes in the industry brought on by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in a series of important strikes in 1909 and 1910.

The fire, at the end of the workweek, killed mostly young, immigrant women workers.

The resulting reforms and political realignments remade both the labor movement and the American political system. But, today, I want to pause to remember those 146 workers who died while trying to support their families and themselves.

They didn’t have to die, and that’s the tragedy. I urge you to read their names and offer up a small prayer for them and for all workers in harms way today.

Richard Greenwald is a labor historian and social critic. . His essays have appeared in In These Times, The Progressive, The Wall Street Journal among others. He is currently writing a book on the rise of freelancing and is co-editing a book on the future of work for The New Press, which features essays from the county’s leading labor scholars and public intellectuals.
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