Volume 80, Number 44 | March 31 - April 6, 2011
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Photo by J.B. Nicholas

At the centennial ceremony, representations of shirtwaists with sashes bearing the names of the fire’s victims were held aloft.

Century later, tragic fire is still galvanizing for unions

By Aline Reynolds

Family members, trade unionists, local residents and students gathered at Washington Place in Greenwich Village last Friday to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, which in a matter of minutes killed 146 garment workers, most of them young immigrant women.

The poignant, two-hour event, held in front of the former Asch Building, engendered grief among the descendants of those who died in the blaze, and determination among local union workers to continue lobbying for their pensions and collective bargaining rights.

“We’ve come together to remind ourselves why those workers were killed, by the greed of their bosses and the inaction of public officials to provide a safe way to exit that building,” said Bruce Raynor, president of Workers United, a North American worker’s union that helped organize the centennial ceremony.

To the crowd’s cheers, Raynor continued, “And we come together to remind ourselves that those workers were fighting for their rights to have a union in that workplace, and the right to be treated with dignity and respect on the job — something that’s God-given, in the city of New York and in our country.”

Congressmember Jerrold Nadler said, “The Triangle tragedy is a powerful reminder of just how terrible conditions were before unions pushed for basic protections and rights for workers,” particularly, he added, given the “denigration” and “scapegoating” of organized labor taking place today.

The Triangle Factory deaths could have been averted had proper safety mechanisms been in place, pointed out Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, one of North America’s largest unions.

“I feel sorrow, but mostly I feel indignation at the injustice that those women had to jump to their deaths when they could have been saved,” she said.

The workers’ deaths, the speakers stressed, were not in vain. Senator Chuck Schumer said the tragedy, and the pro-union protests that ensued, accelerated the creation of workplace democracy, and prompted New York State to pass safety legislation that later inspired the New Deal.

“The phoenix that rose out of the ashes of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire was a clarion call to action,” said Schumer. “It supercharged the American labor movement and emboldened activists and lawmakers alike to push forward with workplace safety laws, child labor laws and, most of all, collective bargaining rights.”

Safety violations, however, still exist around the country and the world since workers’ protection laws aren’t always strictly enforced.

“It’s an ongoing battle,” said Rachel Bernstein, an adjunct history professor at New York University. “The main issue in the clothing industry is that most American manufacturers send work overseas to shops where this type of thing occurs,” she said, referencing a fire in a Bangladesh garment factory last December that killed at least 20 workers.

“You can rest assured, folks, that the Department of Labor is back in the enforcement business,” said Hilda Solis, U.S. secretary of Labor. “We believe that no workers should be met with abuse or injustice on the job.”

The centennial memorial, she noted, was as much a commemoration of the victims of the 1911 blaze as a rally in support of current labor protesters, like those challenging Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s effort to cut public employees’ collective bargaining rights and benefits to “repair” the state’s budget.

“Unionized workers are settling for less and less while developers and big business receive million-dollar subsidies,” added Councilmember Margaret Chin. “Public workers are taking the blame for budget deficits, while the ‘millionaire’s tax’ sits on the state Senate’s cutting-room floor.”

Americanss today must take responsibility to improve working conditions for this generation and the ones to follow, stressed actor Danny Glover.

“It’s upon us,” he said, “to take this moment as we support those who struggle now to define our world in the 21st century, and to define a new relationship between labor and capitalism.”

Lesely Casula and her family journeyed from Gainesville, Virginia, to commemorate the life of Casula’s great aunt Rosie Weiner, who died in the Triangle blaze at age 19. Weiner’s younger sister and fellow garment worker, Katie Weiner, 17, jumped onto an elevator cable and managed to escape the flames.

Casula has fond childhood memories of spending time with Katie and learning about her experience working in the factory.

“It was very emotional and significant to me,” Casula said after the centennial event, as she wore a jacket adorned with a photograph of her Aunt Rosie. “I wanted to make sure my daughter was there, to make sure [Rosie’s] memories carry on in the family.”

She and other family members in attendance wept as school children from P.S. 1, P.S. 34 and M.S. 118 read aloud the names of the garment workers who lost their lives on that fateful day. Firefighters then ceremonially raised a fire truck ladder to the sixth floor of the former Asch Building, today known as the Brown Building, which is as far as it could reach in 1911.

Fire Department Commissioner Salvatore Cassano compared the Triangle fire to 9/11.

“While in many ways, these two catastrophes were very different,” he said, “they caused the nation to do some collective soul-searching.”

In the months after the Triangle fire, according to Cassano, the city saw a substantial drop in daily blazes.

“Their deaths made the generation of working Americans — rich and poor, native-born or immigrant — much, much safer,” he said of the shirtwaist factory victims.

Villager Stephen Kroninger brought his daughter, Rachel, 12, to the event to learn about the fire.

“It was really exciting and sad,” she said of the ceremony. “I learned a lot about the political sense of it — how, if they had gotten a union, the fire wouldn’t have happened.”

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