One hundred years later, the National Jewish Democratic Council reverently remembers the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. The fire took the lives of nearly 150 people - many of whom were Jewish and seeking to live the American dream - and was the catalyst that started the modern labor movement.
The fire placed worker safety issues at the top of the labor community’s agenda. A century later though, the lessons of the fire still ring true, as politicians and corporate leaders continue their union-busting efforts and force compromises on worker safety- which have resulted in more workers losing their lives.
As we have emphasized over the last few weeks, the issues of the labor community are Jewish issues because of our traditions and our collective communal history in this country. If you have not done so already, please read the pieces by Rabbi Jonathan Biatch, Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman, and Leonard Fein that explain the Jewish imperative for supporting the labor community.
For more on the legacy of the fire, be sure to see The Forward’s special page dedicated to remembering the fire and read the recent items from the Jewish Labor Committee, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman (D-NY), and author David Von Drehle. You can also visit the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition’s website for more information.
President Barack Obama also marked the 100th anniversary of the fire by issuing a proclamation that said:
On March 25, 1911, a fire spread through the cramped floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in lower Manhattan. Flames spread quickly through the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors—overcrowded, littered with cloth scraps, and containing few buckets of water to douse the flames—giving the factory workers there little time to escape. When the panicked workers tried to flee, they encountered locked doors and broken fire escapes, and were trapped by long tables and bulky machines. As bystanders watched in horror, young workers began jumping out of the windows to escape the inferno, falling helplessly to their deaths on the street below.
By the time the fire was extinguished, nearly 150 individuals had perished in an avoidable tragedy. The exploited workers killed that day were mostly young women, recent immigrants of Jewish and Italian descent. The catastrophe sent shockwaves through New York City and the immigrant communities of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where families struggled to recognize the charred remains of their loved ones in makeshift morgues. The last victims were officially identified just this year.
A century later, we reflect not only on the tragic loss of these young lives, but also on the movement they inspired. The Triangle factory fire was a galvanizing moment, calling American leaders to reexamine their approach to workplace conditions and the purpose of unions. The fire awakened the conscience of our Nation, inspiring sweeping improvements to safety regulations both in New York and across the United States. The tragedy strengthened the potency of organized labor, which gave voice to previously powerless workers. A witness to the fire, Frances Perkins carried the gruesome images of that day through a lifetime of advocacy for American workers and into her role as the Secretary of Labor and our country’s first female Cabinet Secretary.
Despite the enormous progress made since the Triangle factory fire, we are still fighting to provide adequate working conditions for all women and men on the job, ensure no person within our borders is exploited for their labor, and uphold collective bargaining as a tool to give workers a seat at the tables of power. Working Americans are the backbone of our communities and power the engine of our economy. As we mark the anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, let us resolve to renew the urgency that tragedy inspired and recommit to our shared responsibility to provide a safe environment for all American workers.
NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim March 25, 2011, as the 100th Anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. I call upon all Americans to participate in ceremonies and activities in memory of those who have been killed due to unsafe working conditions.
And, The Forward reported on a ceremony that was held in New York City that featured Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis as the keynote speaker along with Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY):
U. S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said she did not hesitate a minute when she was asked last year to be a keynote speaker at today’s 100th anniversary commemoration of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.
Solis reminded the thousands of people packed into the blocks near Washington Square that the fire in the overcrowded garment factory claimed the lives of 146 workers. Those are ‘146 reminders that we can and should do better,’ she said.
Solis said the young men and women who perished are ‘all modern examples of the work we still have to do,’ as she alluded to the numerous fatalities that have occurred recently in the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig, in coal mines and among construction workers.
‘We are reminded that we must always protect our most vulnerable workers,’ she said, adding that the U.S. Labor Department was ‘back in the enforcement business.’ Her remarks brought loud cheers and applause from the people in the crowd, many of whom carried union banners.
Solis said that her parents had belonged to unions, and hailed the legacy of organized labor. ‘Unions have helped all workers in America have the opportunity to join the middle class,’ she said. ‘Let us pledge to never give up our fight for justice.’
Joining in the centennial commemoration were men in hardhats, school children, unionists, the ceremonial unit of the New York City Fire Department and descendants of family members who died in the Triangle fire, as well as those whose ancestors had survived.
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