Triangle Waist Factory Fire: an Important Reminder

The anniversary of the March 25, 1911 Manhattan Triangle Waist Factory fire is generating a good deal of discussion in the media, as it should. While the story is familiar to many people, particularly those who fight for employee rights, it is not only a reminder of the progress we have made in worker protection, but the need for employee protection to remain in the public eye.

 The Triangle Waist Company made its owners rich, primarily through the exploitation of their approximately 500 primarily female immigrant employees, many of whom were 13 or 14 years old and worked long hours, six days each week.  146 of those employees were killed in the fire which exposed the dangerous work conditions that existed in innumerable multi-story factories. As a result, New York and other cities passed a number of laws aimed at addressing the physical safety issues presented.

 Interestingly, two years before the fire, shirtwaist workers around the New York area went on strike to obtain better pay, improved working hours and union recognition. While some of those companies acceded to their employees’ demands, Triangle did not. Whether any of those changes would have avoided the fire or resulted in fewer deaths is unknown. What we do know is that employee rights remain as important today as they were in 1911.  Each of us is undoubtedly aware of more than one situation in which employees are being unfairly or unlawfully treated, despite the federal and state laws that exist for their protection. Unionization in Wisconsin and Indiana has become  a lightening rod for discussion, but that is hardly the only issue American workers face. This country has operated under certain core concepts which include an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay and fair treatment for all. When we fail to protect our workers, we have cheated everyone.