Why Labor Day is important: Remembering the Triangle factory fire

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For many people, Labor Day marks the end of summer, the last day on which you can tastefully wear white shoes, or the beginning of football season. The lack of a clear connection to labor itself is hardly surprising. As the United States economy has moved away from manufacturing, the idea of a day specifically set aside to honor the American labor force can seem strangely old-fashioned.

However, as consumers line up for great deals at an endless array of Labor Day sales, it's worth considering the events that pushed labor unions to the forefront of the American power structure. Labor Day has been a recognized holiday since 1894, when President Grover Cleveland made it part of the federal response to the horrendously divisive Pullman Car Strike. But even after labor got its very own holiday, working situations continued to be grim for millions, as waves of immigrants enabled America's manufacturers to keep wages low and workplace conditions primitive at best. This became particularly clear on March 25, 1911, when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire caught the attention of America's workers and galvanized labor leaders.
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Triangle Factory Fire
Firemen fight a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City, March 1911. The fire claimed the lives of 146 young immigrant workers.
FDR Library
FDR Library

The Triangle Shirtwaist company was located on the top three floors of the Asch building in New York City. It employed approximately 600 young women, most of whom were immigrants from Italy, Eastern Europe, and Germany. They worked in fourteen hour shifts, for $6-7 per week; this was roughly half of the average income at the time. During a strike in 1909, the factory's owners -- Max Blanck and Isaac Harris -- allegedly paid thugs to attack protesters and brought in prostitutes to replace the strikers.

Blanck and Harris' factories had a reputation for questionable fires. On two prior occasions, the Triangle factory had had major fires that wiped out leftover stock. On both dates, the building had been empty, and the owners had received major insurance payouts for their losses.

On March 25, however, the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the factory were full of workers busily making shirts. Nobody knows how the fire began, or even if it was accidental, but it quickly spread through the three floors, feeding on the scraps of cotton fabric that littered the work areas and stairwells. While most of the women on the eighth and tenth floors were able to escape, the workers on the ninth floor were not notified until it was too late.

There were two stairwells leading out of the ninth floor, and one had been locked to keep union organizers out of the building. The other was filled with smoke and flames. The elevator also quickly stopped working, shutting off the final escape route. Many workers, faced with a choice between escape and immolation, jumped out of the windows to the sidewalk, with horrific consequences.

By the time the fire was over, it had claimed 148 workers, and was the worst workplace disaster in New York City history, a distinction that it held until September 11, 2001. It led to massive protests and, ultimately, to considerable improvements in workplace conditions. Today, the Asch building, which is now known as the Brown Building of Science, is owned by New York University. The eighth floor was recently gutted, and the ninth floor is now a state-of-the-art research laboratory.

Over the past few years, unions have watched their popularity dwindle. Once seen as the stalwart defenders of downtrodden workers, organized labor has increasingly seemed bloated, distant, and self-destructive. This declining public perception was recently cast into sharp relief as the leaders of Detroit's big three automakers found themselves trying to explain to Congress why their businesses were in such arrears. As they cast about for a villain to explain their failing fortunes, the public conversation was quickly dominated by discussion of overpaid autoworkers and excessive health insurance plans.

While the current state of the unions is a matter for some debate, even the quickest glance at worker rights in Chinese or Mexican factories makes it clear why organized labor is so central to American concepts of social justice and fair play. The famed Pullman Car strike, the Triangle Fire, and similar events are strong reminders that, while unions may not always be perfect, they will always be necessary.

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