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. On March 25, 1911, 146 garment workers, mostly young immigrant women, died after a fire broke out at the factory. Many of them leaped to their deaths when they tried to escape and found the emergency exits locked. "I saw people throwing themselves from the window. As soon as we went down, we could not get out because the bodies were coming down" says the last survivor of the fire in a 1986 interview with Amy Goodman. Denied any collective bargaining rights, the Triangle workers were powerless to change the abysmal conditions in their factory: inadequate ventilation, lack of safety precautions and fire drills--and locked doors.
The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City unleashed public outrage, forcing government action. Within three years, more than 36 new state laws had been passed on quality of workplace conditions. The landmark legislation gave New Yorkers the most comprehensive workplace safety laws in the country and become a model for the nation. “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,” says labor historian Steve Fraser.
One hundred years after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, we look at some of the major struggles facing workers today in the United States and around the world. In one of many recent fires, 26 workers making clothes for U.S. companies were killed in Bangladesh last December. Workers across the United States, meanwhile, are facing a resurgent assault on salaries, benefits and their right to organize—as epitomized in Wisconsin’s anti-union bill.