Honoring Triangle Shirtwaist victims

By Jeffery Smith

NEW YORK--Union members, students, labor activists and firefighters gathered on March 27 at the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 to remember the workers who died so needlessly and to call for safe working conditions for workers in the city, the nation and worldwide.

On March 25, 1911, a four-alarm fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on Greene Street in New York City. The bosses had locked the doors to this sweatshop in order to prevent workers' access to union organizers, and this trapped the mostly teenage immigrant women garment workers on the top floors as the fire spread. Many of the 146 women who perished died horrifically when they jumped from the ninth and tenth floors to escape the smoke and flames.

At the rally in commemoration of this terrible event, several labor representatives stressed the need to pass an uncompromised Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) now to provide those workers who are unrepresented by unions in their workplaces the freedom to organize for safer work conditions and all the other benefits that come with union membership.

At least 211 workers died in New York City alone last year due to unsafe workplaces and practices. Charlene Chaplin is an unemployed worker fighting for improved conditions for women in jobs not traditionally held by women. She said that the need for improved safety conditions for workers in such fields as construction brought her out to the remembrance. She was adamant that "most employers don't really care about safety!"

Micah Landau, a United Federation of Teachers staff member, passed out information on the current strike at the Stella D'oro cookie factory. His grandfather was an organizer for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, and Landau stressed how important the fire was in sparking the creation of this union. On EFCA, he stressed that "grassroots organizers need to keep the heat on union leaders not to compromise on the EFCA."

Emily Williamson, a member of the Graduate Students Organizing Committee at New York University (NYU), came out to the commemoration to learn more about the history of labor in New York and to show solidarity with workers fighting for their rights today. She was critical of the lack of any permanent recognition of the tragedy in the old Triangle building that NYU currently owns and operates.

"The climate for labor organizing is drastically different now than it has been until just recently," she said, adding that she hopes that this means that Congress will approve EFCA.