Today marks the centennial anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the deadliest workplace accident in New York City's history and a seminal moment for American labor. The tragedy unleashed public outrage, forcing government action. Within three years, more than 36 new state laws had been passed on quality of workplace conditions.
Today, Republican leaders across the United States are leveraging an anti-labor movement to roll back many rights workers' fought for in the early 20th century. Just this week, Maine Republican Gov. Paul LePage has ordered conference rooms at the state's Department of Labor building to be renamed, many which are currently named after labor figures including two women who became staunch advocates for workers' rights and workplace safety after witnessing the Triangle fire.
Here is an except of the Democracy Now! interview with labor historian Steve Fraser:
STEVE FRASER: Well, the fire -- there's a straight line, really, that runs from the fire right through to the New Deal, the labor legislation reform of that era, the welfare state, and the creation of industrial unionism and the right to organize in the 1930s.
And there's a line that runs from that period to our current moment, which is determined, in part, by an assault on all of those democratic achievements that we see going on in Madison, Wisconsin, throughout the industrial Midwest, even bizarrely in Maine, where the governor of Maine has actually proposed erasing that history by obliterating the names of some of the heroines that organized the garment industry and were present at the fire -- Rose Schneiderman, particularly, who was a key militant, a member of the Women's Trade Union League, and of course Frances Perkins, who became -- who was a witness to the fire and became Roosevelt's Secretary of Labor. There are conference rooms in Augusta named after those two women, who the current Republican governor proposes to remove, because he considers those names not neutral enough. So there's a -- we're living that history even today.
Democracy Now! also spoke with labor historian Annelise Orelick about how the garment workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory were very involved in the labor movement in New York City in 1911.
Here is an excerpt of the interview with Annelise Orleck:
ANNELISE ORLECK: These women were the strikers of 1909, 1910, and they had gotten a lot of coverage in the press. And they had been quoted, sometimes 15-, 16-, 17-year-old girls talking about their constitutional rights and their rights to picket without being beaten and marching on City Hall with banners in Yiddish and Italian and English, saying, "We are not slaves" and "Abolish slavery."
They had attracted the attention and the affection of the city. And as Steve pointed out, many people who had not previously been sympathetic to labor began to shift their views. Even the New York Times, which had been staunchly anti-labor, began to cover the strikers with a little bit more sympathy. Partly it was the violence that was leveled against them. The leader of the strike, Clara Lemlich, had six ribs broken by clubs during the course of the strike. There were girls who were dragged off with bloodied heads in bandages. And at first that didn't win sympathy. One judge, when a girl was dragged before him with a head covered in blood, said, "You are on strike against God and nature, and women shouldn't be out parading themselves like this."
Just shy of the 100th year anniversary of the Triangle tragedy, fire broke out at a Bangladeshi garment factory where workers were manufacturing clothing for U.S. companies. Twenty-six people died, several after jumping out of the windows to escape the fire, tragic similarities to what took place at the Triangle factory in New York City in 1911.
Democracy Now! interviews Charles Kernaghan, director of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, about the fire in Bangladesh and about the ongoing movement to demand labor laws for workers around the world, as the world increasingly globalizes in the 21st century.
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