March 14, 2011
At this pivotal moment, when collective bargaining is under attack in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and other states, AFSCME reflects on another historic moment in labor history, the Triangle Factory Fire in New York City.
One hundred years ago this month, 146 young immigrant workers – most of them women – lost their lives in a raging sweatshop fire at the Triangle Waist Company. The building’s doors, locked at the time, forced many of the workers to jump to their deaths from top floor windows rather than perish in the flames. Firefighters’ ladders and hoses were too short to reach them.
In the disaster’s aftermath, the owners settled a number of civil suits by paying $75 per lost life, but otherwise escaped punishment.
Thankfully, the story doesn’t end there. Unions and other organizations, including the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) and the Women’s’ Trade Union League (WTUL), set out to improve working conditions at sweatshops like the Triangle Factory through collective bargaining. They also helped transform the labor code of New York state, forcing the adoption of fire safety measures that served as a model for the entire country.
“The Triangle fire became a central moment in the history of the labor movement and in particular of the ILGWU,” says the Cornell University Library website devoted to telling the story of the Triangle Factory fire. “It endured in the collective memory of its members as a symbol of the evils that made it necessary for workers to organize into unions.”
This terrible human tragedy demonstrates why unions are so important in the lives of working Americans. AFSCME is at the forefront of improving workplace safety, fighting for changes in ergonomic standards to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome and other muscular-skeletal injuries, educating members who work in dangerous jobs, and lobbying the U.S. Congress to protect public service workers such as corrections officers.