Remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

By Troy Jackson 03-25-2011

On the morning of Saturday, March 25, 1911 more than 600 employees, mostly immigrant women, reported for work at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York City. Their sewing and textile jobs were dreary, exhausting, and dangerous as they toiled in poorly lit and inadequately ventilated environs. The fact that the workers remained at the wheel past 4:30 on a Saturday is but another indication of their plight. Not surprisingly, the women had no union, as the company had effectively resisted labor's organizing efforts a few years earlier by "outsourcing" jobs to nearby cities until the workers fell in line.

At roughly 4:40 PM that afternoon, a fire broke out in the factory on the 8th floor. When women on that level and on the 9th floor attempted to flee, they found the exit doors locked, an all-too-common practice meant to deter workers from departing early or taking an unauthorized break. As the fire spread, desperate immigrant women resorted to jumping from windows to flee the flames and unbearable heat. All told, 146 people died in the blaze. The average age of the victims was 19 years old.

As we remember the 100th anniversary of one of the most tragic examples of corporate criminality and malfeasance, we find ourselves at a moment when unions and organized labor are under assault. In Wisconsin, Ohio, and around the country, collective bargaining rights for public employee unions are in jeopardy.

In the midst of all the dialogue about health care benefits and retirement plans, one must never forget that one vital aspect mediated through collective bargaining is workplace safety. Keeping firefighters and police officers as safe as possible should include the perspectives of those who put their lives on the line every day in these jobs, and collective bargaining assures that right.

While we would like to believe that governments and corporations are benevolent and want to insure that all their employees are safe and secure, history shows that corners sometimes get cut to control costs, increase profits, and elevate dividends for investors. Giving workers the right to organize and bargain collectively helps mitigate the risks for workers.

On this, the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Tragedy, let's honor the memories of those who senselessly perished by protecting the bargaining rights of workers to insure a safe and secure workplace.

Troy Jackson is senior pastor of University Christian Church in Cincinnati, a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, and earned his PhD in United States history from the University of Kentucky. He is author of Becoming King: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Making of a National Leader (Civil Rights and the Struggle for Black Equality in the Twentieth Century) and a participant in Sojourners' Windchangers grassroots organizing project in Ohio.

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