Friday, March 25, 2011 marked the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire took place in the Asch Building on the northwest corner of Green Street and Washington Place, in Greenwich Village, New York City. This horrible fire killed 146 women, most of whom were either Italian or Jewish immigrants.
Devastatingly, the deaths of these women could have been avoided. The doors of the factory were locked, and therefore workers were faced with the choice of either jumping from the 8th, 9th, and 10th topmost floors, or staying in the blaze. Historians believe that the doors were locked either to discourage the workers from organizing and participating in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, which fought for better working conditions for sweatshop workers, or to prevent the workers from stealing the shirtwaist material.
On March 25th, labor leaders, school children, Senators, Congresswomen, and the Secretary of Labor gathered outside the Asch building to remember the event, but more importantly to mark the event as the beginning of a wider consciousness and mobilization for workplace and worker protections. Senator Charles Schumer commented that the fire 100 years ago laid the foundation for building a social safety net.
The social safety net and more generally, protections and entitlement programs such as Section 8 vouchers, Medicaid and Medicare, are systems that many Avodahniks are learning to navigate this year. More precisely, we are learning to scrutinize the systems, find ways to better advocate for our clients/tenants/students, etc. and even reform the programs themselves. We rely on the social safety nets that became law due to massive organizing from the social backlash that followed this horrible catastrophe.
These are the protections that many today are trying to do away with in Wisconsin and amongst economic liberal circles. They see workplace protections as impeding the efficiency of an unhampered free market, which they see as bringing about general welfare and lifting all boats, as Milton Friedman might suggest. It is ironic however, because Wisconsin was the first state in the union to adopt a true “workman’s” compensation law in 1911, the first of such protections nationally.
Tucked between a new French restaurant and a local bodega, I found a memorial on a Harlem street corner for the nine factory workers who lived in East Harlem and commuted to the factory. Posters lined the brick walls remembering these women, who from their names appeared to be predominately Italian immigrants. Even late in the evening on Saturday night, this memorial —which was just a few pieces of paper stapled into the wall of the bodega— warmly reminded me of the human side of the wider fight for protections and government. The memory of the victims and the struggles that ensued were not just a sentiments raised in a rally downtown on a Friday afternoon, but remembered across the city, and among pockets of New Yorkers.
With the memory of the 146 victims we must continue to fight for stronger child labor laws, worker protections, and workers’ rights to collectively bargain for living wages, protections, and benefits. Unfortunately we do not have to look back 100 years for such reminders. Zichronam Livracha. May their memories be a blessing.