U. S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis said she did not hesitate a minute when she was asked last year to be a keynote speaker at today’s 100th anniversary commemoration of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.
Solis reminded the thousands of people packed into the blocks near Washington Square that the fire in the overcrowded garment factory claimed the lives of 146 workers. Those are “146 reminders that we can and should do better,” she said.
Solis said the young men and women who perished are “all modern examples of the work we still have to do,” as she alluded to the numerous fatalities that have occurred recently in the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig, in coal mines and among construction workers.
“We are reminded that we must always protect our most vulnerable workers,” she said, adding that the U.S. Labor Department was “back in the enforcement business.” Her remarks brought loud cheers and applause from the people in the crowd, many of whom carried union banners.
Solis said that her parents had belonged to unions, and hailed the legacy of organized labor. “Unions have helped all workers in America have the opportunity to join the middle class,” she said. “Let us pledge to never give up our fight for justice.”
Joining in the centennial commemoration were men in hardhats, school children, unionists, the ceremonial unit of the New York City Fire Department and descendants of family members who died in the Triangle fire, as well as those whose ancestors had survived.
Bruce Raynor, president of Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union that represents garment and textile workers, pointed to the former Asch Building, now New York University’s Brown Building in Greenwich Village, and told the crowd that they were looking at the exact spot where tragedy occurred.
“Those were the windows out of which young women, garment workers… were forced to jump… and were crushed to death on the sidewalk.”
The workers in the Triangle shop, which remained non-union following a bitter strike, had fought for such safety features as exit doors that opened outward and adequate fire escapes.
“We come together to remind ourselves that those workers were fighting for their rights to have a union in that workplace, and be treated with dignity,” Raynor said.
Another key speaker, New York Senator Charles Schumer described the fire as “a clarion call to action.” Out of the tragedy grew major reforms in labor laws, fire safety and building codes.
He wasted no time in tying the Triangle fire to the battle in Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker engaged in a fight with public-sector unions to deny them collective-bargaining powers.
“Today, hard gains are under threat across the United States by those who want to drag our country back to 1911…. We saw this kind of power grab in Wisconsin,” he said.
Schumer got huge cheers when he said Walker “may have won the battle, but he’s going to lose the war. That is because the American people do not want to go back to 1911 when workers had no rights.”
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg described the fire as one that “shocked our city and stirred its conscience.” But Bloomberg was booed loudly during his remarks and especially when he mentioned immigration reform. Someone yelled out, “Tax the rich!” That catcall was followed by another that said, “It feels like snow, go to Bermuda,” a reference to the mayor’s absence earlier this year during one of the city’s worst snowstorms in years.
Rabbi Michael Feinberg, executive director of the Greater New York Labor-Religion Coalition, opened the commemoration ceremony. A solemn procession of people marched earlier this morning from Union Square, along Broadway, to Washington Square. The marchers came from many walks of life — unionists, performance artists, teachers, family descendants — and from as far away as Salt Lake City and Chicago.
Most striking were 146 handmade shirtwaists or blouses that were attached to bamboo poles and held high in the air, dancing in the wind on a cold but sunny Friday.
As the marchers gathered, one person blew a shofar and others sang Italian peasant songs, tributes to the mostly Jewish and Italian workers, some as young as 14 years of age, whose lives were cut short.