March 25th marked the 100 year anniversary of the famous Triangle Fire in New York that has become emblematic in our nation’s history as an important turning point for workers’ rights and workplace safety.
The tragic fire took place in 1911 at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Manhattan, a manufacturer of women’s blouses that employed hundreds of young, low-paid immigrant workers. When the fire broke out and quickly spread throughout the building, the workers inside were trapped by locked doors and windows. A total of 146 workers mostly young immigrant women, were killed during the fire.
The reaction in the wake of the tragedy sparked a debate about workers’ rights, particularly because factory workers had recently gone on strike to demand higher wages, shorter hours, and the right to unionize. An investigation in the aftermath revealed serious safety issues and code violations within the factory. In light of the investigation and the public outrage, the National Women’s Trade Union League used the tragedy to bring light to working conditions and to promote better legislation and protections for workers.
In the months following the fire, New York State took swift action that would ultimately prove to be a major boost to the movement for workers’ rights. The state legislature formed an investigative commission and passed more than 30 laws that established standards for wages, working hours and conditions, and workplace inspections. While many of these laws directly responded to the circumstances of the fire, and particularly safety issues, they mark a point in time when workers’ rights began being solidified in legislation.
The 100 year anniversary of the Triangle Fire invites us to reflect on the status of workers’ rights in the United States today, particularly as they are suddenly being very publicly questioned and undermined in states like Wisconsin, Ohio, and others. The Triangle Fire is a good reminder of why workers’ rights are so necessary, and not just for highly politicized issues such as higher wages, health care or pension benefits. Recognizing the rights of workers to unionize and collectively bargain through history has led to safer work places, better working conditions, and the emergence of the middle class.