Today is the 104th anniversary of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist fire which claimed the lives of garment workers on March 25, 1911 on the corner Washington Place and Greene Street, in New York City. Personal accounts of the blaze state that the fire escalated very rapidly, and it is said that in a period of 20 minutes, a spark in a bin of fabric remnants lead to 146 garment factory workers being burned alive or plunging to their deaths.
The fire itself and the events leading up to it seem not so far removed from the tragedies two years ago in the Rana Plaza factory collapse and in factory fires across South Asia since:
- Long working hours (9 hour weekday shifts and one weekend 7 hour shift)
- Locked fire escape doors to keep union workers away
- Inadequate fire safety equipment
- Below living wages (the workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist made, normalized into 2014 terms, $166 to $285 a week, or $3.20 to $5.50 per hour)
- A majority of the workforce being young women, early in their careers and ill-versed in labor policies and fire safety codes
Similar to our collective feeling of outrage and action after the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh, an amazing flock of phoenixes literally rose from the ashes of that fire: a Committee on Public Safety, a strengthened International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), the American Society of Safety Engineers and the practice of safety engineering and monitoring itself, and countless other legislations that have raised the standard working conditions in American factories.
All across New York City on this very day, there are memorials to the brave garment workers who perished in that fire. Since 2004, artist and filmmaker Ruth Sergel has staged a public intervention were she and volunteers chalk the names, ages, and nationalities of the workers in front of their homes across the city. A map of the locations and information about the workers is here.
Additionally, every year, from 11:30 to 1:30pm on March 25th, activists, politicians, family members, and union members gather at the corner of Washington Place and Greene in Greenwich Village to greive and raise awareness of worker-friendly reforms to labor policy. They hold make-shift signs made out of shirts that bear the names of the victims, and at 1pm, a bell is rung 146 times and a single flower is placed on the ground for each soul who perished.
For more information on annual Triangle Shirtwaist Fire commemorative activities and to make a donation to support a permanent monument, go here.
Images: Kheel Center, Sarah Krasley