In September 1909, Clara Lemlich, a young woman from Ukraine, stood up in front of a crowded auditorium in New York City’s Cooper Union. After listening to lengthy speeches by union leaders who urged caution, Lemlich said that the poor pay and unsafe working conditions could go on no longer, and she called for a strike. Her words inspired the Uprising of the 20,000, a walkout that halted work in many of New York City’s garment factories.
Scattered among 16 cemeteries around New York they came to rest, the 146 people whose lives were violently cut short 100 years ago in one of the nation’s worst industrial disasters — the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.
It was a family reunion of sorts — just 100 years after the fact. As soon as the march and speeches were over, and the names of all 146 victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire had been read aloud, family members of those who died and those who survived the March 25, 1911, blaze headed to a restaurant to break bread together, courtesy of the Triangle Families Association.
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.
Scores of events have been scheduled to mark the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. The workplace disaster took place March 25, 1911, and killed 146 people — most of them young Jewish and Italian immigrant women. The Forward speaks with the filmmakers behind an HBO documentary on the fire, the composer of a new oratorio about the tragedy, descendants of those who died in the blaze, and strangers who visit the graves of the victims, among others commemorating the somber anniversary.
On a recent late-winter afternoon, the workers’ center on the second floor of a nondescript office building in New York City’s Chinatown was full and busy. Everyone had just eaten lunch; warm soup was welcome after picketing in the cold outside an offending restaurant, Saigon Grill on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. In the rear of the small office suite, with worn blue industrial carpet underfoot and inspirational posters bearing Mandarin Chinese writing on the walls, a circle of Saigon Grill’s delivery men discussed how to deal with what they called their employer’s latest affronts.
Along the broad boulevards and dignified streets of the largely liberal, Jewish Upper West Side, sweatshops don’t seem to be sprouting. From Riverside Park to Lincoln Center, from Harry’s Shoes to Zabar’s, the neighborhood appears to be a civilized place where the days of residents, working folk and visitors unspool in familiar, reassuring rhythms.
Garment industry sweatshops are hardly a thing of the past in New York City: They are a feature of commerce today. The New York State Department of Labor has found it necessary to maintain particular vigilance for several decades, founding the Apparel Industry Task Force in 1987 to monitor the city’s largest manufacturing sector. Today, that task force has a staff of 30, including multilingual investigators, who also comprise the Fair Wages Task Force. The chief of both units, Lorelei Salas, director of strategic enforcement, said that their missions overlap because “the same conditions you find in the garment industry, you can find in other low-wage industries.”
Watch a video tour of where the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire took place 100 years ago. Chris Connor, a retired New York City fire marshal, discusses what went wrong on March 25, 1911, and the enduring legacy of the deadly fire.
Labor leader Stuart Appelbaum believes the battle in Wisconsin over union rights will galvanize support for organized labor — much the way the horror of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire did 100 years ago.