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New York’s labor movement joined together in remembrance at the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place in Greenwich Village Wednesday for the dedication of a permanent memorial to the 146 garment workers killed in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory more than 112 years ago.
The memorial stretches along the building where, on the afternoon of Saturday, March 25, 1911, hundreds of workers, most of them not yet 25, many of them recently arrived immigrants and teenagers, were packed into the top three floors of a garment factory nearing the end of their 52-hour workweek.
Around 4:40 p.m., a fire, sparked by a lit match or cigarette, flared in a bin of discarded cloth scraps under a fabric cutter’s table and quickly consumed the eighth floor and then spread to the ninth and 10th floors.
Hundreds escaped the flames by climbing to the building’s roof and through a neighboring building or making it out in the building’s single workable freight elevator. But dozens did not make it out in time, perishing in the smoke and flames or by leaping from windows to their deaths because their bosses had locked the exit doors, the fire escape buckled and the FDNY’s ladders reached to just the sixth story.
The tragedy spurred workers, in New York City and elsewhere, to organize and push for workplace safety protections and collective bargaining agreements that would improve workers’ quality of life. Only a year after the fire, Local 25 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union called a general strike in the city that eventually brought industry-wide union recognition, a 50-hour workweek and better wage scales. Within four years, 36 workplace safety and pro-labor bills were signed into state law, turning New York into the vanguard for worker protections in the United States.
‘It’s like looking back in time’
Many on Wednesday spoke about the legacy of militant unionism and worker uprising that sprung up after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. Lynne Fox, the president of Workers United, told the hundreds who gathered for the dedication that the ILGWU was attempting to organize women in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory at the time of the fire. One of the reasons the factory doors were locked, Fox said, is that the owners were trying to keep union organizers from speaking with the workers.
“The outpouring of grief from these 146 deaths forced the changes in labor and fire safety laws that continue to protect us today,” said Fox, whose union is a direct descendant of the ILGWU. “And tragically many of these protections are being eroded by unscrupulous employers as greed continues to endanger workers.”
In her speech, Fox pointed out that the legacy of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire resonates in the thousands of young migrant workers employed in dangerous jobs across the country, some of whom have suffered gruesome injuries. The number of child labor violations has exploded in the last several years amongst a tight labor market and the rapid immigration of young people from Central and South America.
“When you look in the faces of those children, many working in dangerous jobs, it's like looking back in time into the faces of the workers who worked in this very building,” Fox said. “And that’s why the memorial is so needed and so timely."
‘We couldn’t have built this without solidarity’
Workers United, now affiliated with the Service Employees International Union, is a core supporter of the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition, the group of advocates and descendants of those who perished in the fire that holds yearly events on the fire’s anniversary and has driven the creation of the memorial over the last decade.
Mary Anne Trasciatti, the coalition’s president, said she was almost in disbelief that after a decade of work and millions of dollars spent, the permanent memorial could finally be unveiled. “This was a collective effort that so many people contributed to, and I’m just honored to be among them,” she told The Chief Wednesday. “We couldn’t have built this without solidarity.”
Trasciatti added that, amid a resurgence in illegal child labor, one of the legacies of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire is that child labor then, now and forever, is a harmful practice. “Children need to be children,” she said.
The memorial, designed by architects Uri Wegman and Richard Joon Yoo, is a stainless-steel ribbon wrapped around what is now called the Brown Building — now owned by New York University — with a textured fabric pattern descending from the ninth floor along the building’s corner.
On it are etched the names of those who perished and tells the story of the tragedy in English, Yiddish and Italian, the languages that victims of the fire spoke. Other than the memorial, three plaques adorn the building: one of which was installed on the fire’s 50th anniversary by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers union, another on the 80th anniversary by National Park Service, which designated it as a national landmark, and a third in 2003 by the New York Landmarks Preservation.
Remarkably for a city whose elected and union officials often proclaim New York to be a union town, the memorial is the city’s first dedicated to labor.
Suzanne Pred Bass, the great-niece of two women who were laboring at the factory when the fire broke out, one who lived and testified at the trial of the factory owners, and one who died, called the occasion “a historic day for labor rights.”
And although she remains “haunted” by her Great-Aunt Rosie Weiner’s “untimely, cruel and unnecessary death" at 23, Pred Bass, a founding member of the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition, said she was convinced that the memorial could become “tangible site for collective memory and collective action.”
"Through the memorial this and future generations will learn about the fire and its significance in labor history,” she told attendees. “We can take heart in the knowledge that it will inspire people and raise awareness of what is possible when we work together to better the lives of workers struggling for fair wages, decent benefits and safe working conditions."
Effects on the FDNY
The Triangle Shirtwaist fire led to changes at the FDNY as well, including by the establishment of the department’s Bureau of Fire Prevention, which was founded in March 1912.
The tragedy still looms large for FDNY fire protection inspectors, the bureau’s executive inspector, Ron Kanterman, said. And he explained that the new logo for the fire prevention training academy, emblazoned on his jacket, features a design taken from the insignia of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company.
“We consistently drive the Triangle story home with our inspectional staff in order to ensure they never question what our mission is and why we do the work we do.” Kanterman told the hundreds who gathered along Greene Street for the memorial’s dedication.
As Kanterman concluded his remarks, firefighters from Ladder Company 20 raised a ladder to the sixth floor of the 10-story building.
In her remarks, the acting U.S. labor secretary, Julie Su, referenced a story of one of her predecessors, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's labor secretary, Frances Perkins, who witnessed the fire and went on to craft much of the pro-worker policies in FDR’s New Deal.
Su told the story of how, as a young lawyer in 1995, she represented a group of Thai immigrant garment workers who worked for 18-hour days behind barbed wire fences under the threat of physical violence. “For me — just like for Frances Perkins who came before me — seeing the horror that these workers had to endure changed my life,” she said.
Su added that she and “Union Joe,” as she called Biden, were determined to empower working people and ensure that workers are heard. She pointed to the Biden Administration’s support for worker organizing and its crackdown on companies exploiting migrant children and using child labor.
Speaking with The Chief following the dedication, Su said that the memorial is a reminder that every worker in the U.S deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. “Anti-immigrant policies are also anti worker, and when you take any group of people and you vilify them, you make them other, they are more vulnerable to exploitation,” Su said. “So many migrants come to America seeking a better life and that was no different in 1911 than it is today.”
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