Today marks the 103rd anniversary of New York's Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in which 146 garment workers, mostly young immigrant women working long hours for a few dollars’ pay, died when they were trapped in a sweatshop inferno because factory owners locked the doors against theft. Two years before, in 1909, the atrocious conditions had led many of the workers to go on strike; they won small concessions on pay, but the doors stayed locked. When the fire spread fast on a floor strewn with oil-soaked rags, many women leaped to their deaths on the street below. The fire was a milestone in labor history, prompting protests and, ultimately, the rise of unions, improved working conditions and the middle class. Today, with fewer than 10% of U.S. workers unionized and the ongoing abuses of a global economy in Bangladesh and elsewhere, there's no better time for the fiery words of Rose Schneiderman, an organizer for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and Women’s Trade Union League, protesting "these poor burned bodies" in 1911. Warning: Video has disturbing images of the disasters at both Triangle and Bangladeshi factories seeing, 100 years later, "exactly the same thing." In the global economy, "we're racing to the bottom."
"Workers in the developing world, they will have their rights. That should be the legacy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire."
Rose Schneiderman (1866-1972), an organizer for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and the Women’s Trade Union League, spoke at a protest of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York on April 2, 1911.
“I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting.
“The old Inquisition had its rack and its thumbscrews and its instruments of torture with iron teeth. We know what these things are today; the iron teeth are our necessities, the thumbscrews are the high-powered and swift machinery close to which we must work, and the rack is here in the firetrap structures that will destroy us the minute they catch on fire.
“This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city. Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred. There are so many of us for one job, it matters little if 146 of us are burned to death.
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“We have tried you citizens; we are trying you now, and you have a couple of dollars for the sorrowing mothers, brothers and sisters by way of a charity gift. But every time the workers come out in the only way they know to protest against conditions which are unbearable the strong hand of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us.
“Public officials have only words of warning to us — warning that we must be intensely peaceable, and they have the workhouse just back of all their warnings. The strong hand of the law beats us back, when we rise, into the conditions that make life unbearable.
“I can’t talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.”