Today, on Labor Day 2013, it’s likely that many Americans know little about the circumstances and conditions that influenced the labor movement in America. I am a supporter of “right to work” laws, but I also know that there was a time when unionism provided the only hope millions of workers had for better working conditions–not to mention better lives.
On March 25, 1911, approximately 500 workers were crafting “shirtwaists,” blouses with puffy sleeves and tight waists. These garments were the height of feminine fashion in America during the years before World War I and worn by “Gibson Girls.” It was part of an image personifying beauty, with a touch of independence, popularized by illustrated stories developed by a guy named—yep, you guessed it—Charles Dana Gibson.
But the women and girls (primarily) working long hours to produce the “shirtwaists” were not likely to actually wear them. They were immigrants for the most part, underpaid and overworked. They labored on the Lower East Side of New York City in a sweatshop at 29 Washington Place—specifically on floors seven through ten. On that particular Saturday they were wrapping up their otherwise typical workweek of many more than 55 hours or so, when a small fire started in a scrap bin. One sad hour later, glowing embers bore witness to an event of unspeakable horror. Sirens wailed throughout the city and hundreds of people made their way toward the scene of billowing smoke, “arriving in time to see tangles of bodies, some trailing flames, tumbling from the ninth-floor windows,” as described in the 2003 bestseller by David Von Drehle, Triangle—The Fire That Changed America.
It was a moment as pivotal as it was tragic.
The death toll reached 146, most of them women between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five. They died from burns, asphyxiation, trauma from a fall, or combinations thereof. In the aftermath of the Triangle fire, the movement toward trade unionism accelerated. Various governmental entities investigated and acted on issues such as low wages, the use of child labor, and employee safety. Eventually, several dozen laws and ordinances were enacted or enhanced, permanently changing the American workplace.
And part of the equation was the development of a strong labor movement in the country. In fact, standing in the crowd watching events unfold on that fateful day 100 years ago was a young lady named Frances Perkins, who would later serve as President Franklin Roosevelt’s Labor Secretary (the first woman in a presidential cabinet). She was famous for her observation that the Triangle fire was “the day the New Deal began.”
Few Americans today, no matter the political posture or affiliation, would seriously challenge the idea that things as they were in sweatshops in 1911 needed to change. And the next year, 1912, when the Titanic sunk, things changed to make sure ships had more lifeboats. Tragedies have often been the catalyst for constructive change and this has a way of honoring the memory of the fallen.