Friday, March 25th marks the 100th anniversary of the "Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire" where 146 people, 129 women and 17 men, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants 16 to 23 years old, either leaped or burned to death as a result of a fire when their escape was blocked by locked doors on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of the Asch Building. The scene was horrific;
One Saturday afternoon in March of that year — March 25, to be precise — I was sitting at one of the reading tables in the old Astor Library... It was a raw, unpleasant day and the comfortable reading room seemed a delightful place to spend the remaining few hours until the library closed. I was deeply engrossed in my book when I became aware of fire engines racing past the building. By this time I was sufficiently Americanized to be fascinated by the sound of fire engines. Along with several others in the library, I ran out to see what was happening, and followed crowds of people to the scene of the fire. A few blocks away, the Asch Building at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street was ablaze. When we arrived at the scene, the police had thrown up a cordon around the area and the firemen were helplessly fighting the blaze. The eighth, ninth, and tenth stories of the building were now an enormous roaring cornice of flames.LABOR UNIONS: We needed them then and need them now.
Word had spread through the East Side, by some magic of terror, that the plant of the Triangle Waist Company was on fire and that several hundred workers were trapped. Horrified and helpless, the crowds — I among them — looked up at the burning building, saw girl after girl appear at the reddened windows, pause for a terrified moment, and then leap to the pavement below, to land as mangled, bloody pulp. This went on for what seemed a ghastly eternity. Occasionally a girl who had hesitated too long was licked by pursuing flames and, screaming with clothing and hair ablaze, plunged like a living torch to the street. Life nets held by the firemen were torn by the impact of the falling bodies.
The emotions of the crowd were indescribable. Women were hysterical, scores fainted; men wept as, in paroxysms of frenzy, they hurled themselves against the police lines.
In the Triangle Factory tragedy, locked doors blocking exits were an effort to stop union organizers. In the aftermath of this event the International Ladies Garments Workers Union (ILGWU) was formed as was the American society of Safety Engineers, which later precipitated OSHA. If you think unions aren't important because you aren't in one, then think again. Unions gave all labor, union or not, advantages like the 40 hour work week, health and retirement benefits, and safer working conditions. Unions provide labor a collective voice that is not otherwise available to counter unfair labor practices by management. Without this voice, labor is reduced to the odd solo voice in the wind and carries little or no weight against unfair practices which even in today's working environment can create an environment for accidents and loss of life. The cost for unfair/unsafe labor practice, at home or abroad, is something we all pay one way or another....for some, as those in the Triangle Factory, it's life or death. Something to keep in mind in light of recent events in Minnesota.
H/Tip to Tengrain and Blue Gal