March 03, 2016
Today is Good Friday. Many Catholics around the globe will venerate the wood of the cross, abstain from meat and observe a fast, and perhaps participate in a Via Crucis. We remember Christ’s death on the cross all those many years ago.
Not only is today Good Friday. We also remember the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York City and the 146 garment workers – most of them young women and girls – who died on this day 105 years ago. That tragedy became a pivotal moment in history that helped usher in sweeping labor law protections in the U.S.
Turn back the clock to 1911, people came to work as usual that day, unaware of what would happen at a ten-story building along Washington Place in Greenwich Village. Known then as the Asch Building, the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors were occupied by the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. Making women’s blouses, the factory normally employed about 500 workers, mostly young immigrant women, who worked nine hours a day on weekdays plus seven hours on Saturdays, earning for their 52 hours of work between $7 and $12 a week, the 2014 equivalent of $166 to $285 a week, or $3.20 to $5.50 per hour.
Fire investigators are not absolutely certain how it began. Perhaps someone tossed a match or cigarette butt in a scrap bin. Others suggest that a machine may have caught fire.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Manhattan, New York City on March 25, 1911 was the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of the city, and one of the deadliest in US history. The fire caused the deaths of 146 garment workers – 123 women and 23 men – who died from the fire, smoke inhalation, or falling or jumping to their deaths. Most of the victims were recent Jewish and Italian immigrant women aged 16 to 23; of the victims whose ages are known, the oldest victim was Providenza Panno at 43, and the youngest were 14-year-olds Kate Leone and “Sara” Rosaria Maltese.
Because the owners had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits – a then-common practice to prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks and to reduce theft – many of the workers could not escape and jumped from the high windows. The fire led to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), which fought for better working conditions for sweatshop workers.
As we remember those workers, we also remember garment workers everywhere, too many of whom continue to risk their lives making the clothes we wear. Next month will mark three years since the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh killing more than 1,000 workers. The Human Thread advocates on behalf of apparel workers everywhere seeking a just wage, in addition to reasonable provision for workplace safety.