Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Remembrance

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On March 21, 2011, the Kalmanovitz Initiative co-sponsored a symposium to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York City. The fire resulted in the deaths of 146 workers, most of whom were female immigrants.

Sally Greenberg, Executive Director of the National Consumers League, kicked off the symposium with a welcome address.  Her address was followed by a reading of Senate Resolution 106, submitted by Sen. Gillibrand (D-NY) which recognizes the week of March 21-March 25 as the 100th Anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Remembrance Week.

The first panel – which was moderated by Sara Manzano-Diaz, Director of the Women’s Bureau at the US Department of Labor – offered an in-depth historical look at the fire and its aftermath.  Joe McCartin, the KI’s Executive Director, spoke about the context in which this fire occurred.  The early twentieth century, he said, was a time of changes in workforce organization, changes that included more women and immigrant workers.  It was also a time when government regulation of industry was viewed with great skepticism and industrial accidents, including fires, were typical.  One of the lessons of the Triangle fire, he asserted, was that the market alone cannot be allowed to determine work conditions; the public good must be taken into account, as well.

Robyn Muncy, Associate Professor of History at the University of Maryland, discussed the difficulties women immigrant workers faced to organize at that time.  In spite of their 1909 strike, the workers at Triangle were not able to form a union.  Had they had such representation, they might have been able to prevent management’s policy of leaving all but one door padlocked from the outside – a policy that prevented the workers from escaping the fire’s flames.

Rounding out the first panel was Kirstin Downey, author of The Woman Behind the New Deal, a biography of Frances Perkins.  Ms. Downey talked about how witnessing the fire was a transformative event in Perkins’s life.  Within the two years following the fire alone, she helped herald 43 pro-worker bills through the New York legislature, 34 of which were passed.

The second panel – moderated by American Rights at Work’s Executive Director, Kim Freeman Brown – examined the current state of play of worker health and safety in a variety of industries.  David Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA, spoke about the failure of worker health and safety laws to make workers who are injured or die on the job whole.  With 3 million injuries reported to OSHA per year, Dr. Michaels spoke of the need for legislative action to right these wrongs.  Norma Flores Lopez, a former child laborer who is currently the Director of Children in the Fields, spoke both about her own experience as a child and how the same challenges continue to plague child agricultural workers. The audience then heard from Chris Jones, whose brother died while working on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in April 2010. Mr. Jones spoke about the toll that workplace injuries and deaths have not only on workers, but on their families, friends and communities, as well.

Pamela Vossenas of UNITE HERE!’s Occupational Health and Safety Program, talked about dangers workers in the service industry face.  She focused on hotel housekeepers and the failure of many national hotel chains to provide their housekeepers with ergonomic tools to prevent injuries as well as their lack of accommodations to employees who have already sustained injuries on the job.  Eric Frumin, Change to Win’s Safety and Health Director, also spoke of safety issues specifically related to those in service-sector jobs.  He noted how even modest reforms face huge opposition.

Last on the panel was Judy Gearhart, Executive Director of the International Labor Rights Forum, who gave a global perspective to the event.  She focused specifically on the garment industry in Bangladesh, where conditions today are strikingly similar to those at the Triangle Factory 100 years ago.  According to the Bangladeshi government, 414 garment workers died between 2004 and 2009.  Ms. Gearhart reported that factories often bribe fire inspectors and fire drills are uncommon.

Stanley “Goose” Stewart, a survivor of the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion, and Cecil Roberts, President of United Mine Workers of America, were keynote speakers.  Mr. Stewart described Upper Big Branche under the management of Massey Energy as the least safe mine he has ever worked at.  He spoke of a poor work climate – one in which the company routinely dismissed workers to dissuade others from voicing concerns or engaging in organizing activity.  And he described in chilling detail the events of April 5, 2010 and the impact this disaster has had on his life since then.

Mr. Roberts discussed the harmful effects bad actors have in the mining industry.  He described two ways to make mines safer: legislation and unionization.  In the absence of legislative efforts to increase worker safety standards, he argued for unionization as the best way to ensure workers are protected.