Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Remembering what unions fought for

A hundred years ago, on March 25, 1911, 146 women died horrifically in an industrial fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York. PBS has honored their memory with a documentary about their labor struggles and how their tragic deaths achieved what their campaign for better working conditions could not.

Watch the full episode. See more American Experience.

The workers in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory were among the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who toiled in the city's garment factories at the time. They came from countries such as Italy and Russia in search of a better future, and all around them they saw the riches promised by the American Dream. New York was in its Gilded Age and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was not too far from the limestone mansions of millionaires and the elegant shops of the famed Ladies Mile. Two men who had achieved the dream were the wealthy owners of the thriving Triangle factory. Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, immigrants who had arrived from Russia only 20 years earlier, had become known as New York's "Shirtwaist Kings," and each owned fully staffed brownstones on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

The dream seemed a long way off for the young workers at the factory who toiled 13 hours a day for $0.13 an hour. Though the factory was considered modern with its high ceilings and large windows, the working conditions were difficult. Only a year before the deadly fire, New York's garment workers had begun agitating for shorter hours, better pay, safer shops and unions. To the horror of Harris and Blanck, the young women of the Triangle factory joined the crusade and called for a strike, becoming leaders in what became the largest women's strike in American history. Within 48 hours, more than 50 of the smallest factories gave in to their workers' demands, but the Triangle bosses organized other owners and refused to surrender, paying prostitutes and police to beat the strikers. Their terrible treatment brought the women an unexpected ally. Anne Morgan, the daughter of J.P. Morgan, and many of her powerful suffragist friends -- the so-called "mink brigade" -- took up their cause, and the press and public began to rally to the plight of the brave young seamstresses.

After the strike had continued for 11 weeks, the Triangle owners finally agreed to higher wages and shorter hours. But they drew the line at a union. Back on the job, the Triangle workers still lacked real power to improve the worst conditions of the factory floor: inadequate ventilation, lack of safety precautions and fire drills -- and locked doors.

When a tossed match or lit cigarette ignited a fire on the eighth floor of the building, flames spread quickly. Blanck and Harris received warning by phone and escaped, but the 240 workers on the ninth floor continued stitching, oblivious to the flames gathering force on the floor below. When they finally did see the smoke, the women panicked. Some rushed toward the open stairwell, but columns of flames already blocked their path.
As unions continue to be demonized and demagogues like Glenn Beck encourage their audience to roll back the progressive reforms of the 20th century, its important to remember what it was that unions fought to achieve in the first place.

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