Frances Perkins was having tea with a friend when she heard the fire engines. They looked out to see a crowd rushing past them toward the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, whose top floors were shrouded in smoke and flames. Women and girls crowded at the windows and as the flames pressed closer, some scrambled onto the ledges, a dizzying eight stories above the sidewalks. Perkins arrived just as they started to jump.
"They couldn't hold on any longer," she recalled years later. "There was no place to go. The fire was between them and any means of exit. It's that awful choice people talk of - what kind of choice to make?"
The fire, which happened on this day in 1911, killed 146 workers in 20 minutes, almost all of them immigrant women and girls. The fire and its aftermath are thoroughly documented in Triangle: The Fire That Changed America, one of the books highlighted in our Books That Shaped Work in America project.
While the fire was an undeniable tragedy, many positive developments arose from the ashes. The disaster galvanized the nation's workers' rights movement. It drew attention to workplace dangers and harsh working conditions. Worker protection laws were strengthened, not only in New York, but across the nation. And Frances Perkins went on to become one of the most important labor leaders in America's history, as the longest serving Labor Secretary and the first woman in the U.S. Cabinet.
Today, the Labor Department honors her legacy by pursuing the changes she fought for -- better working conditions and increased safety for all of America's workers. As our current Secretary of Labor Tom Perez has said, "No one should have to sacrifice their life for their livelihood." We shouldn't need another workplace disaster to be reminded of that again.
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