Remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory

March 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

We are in the middle of a wonderful month of raising awareness about women’s lives and so I think it is fitting to remember significant events in our nation’s history, particularly as they pertain to gender, race, ethnicity, and class.

Some of you may remember learning about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in a history class, and others of you may just be learning about it today. On March 25, we will mark the 100th anniversary of this tragic fire.

“The Triangle Waist Company was in many ways a typical sweated factory in the heart of Manhattan. Low wages, excessively long hours, and unsanitary and dangerous working conditions were the hallmarks of sweatshops… The building owners supposedly never knew the rates paid to the workers, nor did they know exactly how many workers were employed at their factory at any given point. Many of the Triangle factory workers were women, some as young as 15 years old. They were, for the most part, recent Italian and European Jewish immigrants.

Near closing time on Saturday afternoon, March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the top floors of the Triangle Waist Company. Workers recounted their helpless efforts to open the ninth floor doors to the Washington Place stairs. They and many others afterwards believed they were deliberately locked– owners had frequently locked the exit doors in the past, claiming that workers stole materials. For all practical purposes, the ninth floor fire escape led nowhere, certainly not to safety, and it bent under the weight of the factory workers trying to escape the inferno. Others waited at the windows for the rescue workers only to discover that the firefighters’ ladders were several stories too short and the water from the hoses could not reach the top floors. Many chose to jump to their deaths rather than to burn alive.

By the time the fire was over, 146 of the 500 employees had died.” (For more information see the Cornell site here)

The New York Times recently reported that 100 years after the fire, all of those who died in the fire had finally been identified.

So why does this matter? It matters because we still face this issue in the United States. Sweatshops have not disappeared, they are merely less visible. Workers (including those who are undocumented) who desperately need work are often exploited because our their need put food on the table and a roof over their heads.  The U.S. Department of Labor found that 67% of Los Angeles garment factories and 63% of New York garment factories violate minimum wage and overtime laws, and 98% of Los Angeles garment factories have serious health and safety issues that could result in severe injuries or death.

It seems, we haven’t come that far after all.

 

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