Triangle Shirtwaist Factory managers had locked the building's exits and stairwells -- at the time, a common practice ostensibly intended to keep workers from stealing. But the locked stairwells also made it impossible for workers to escape when a fire broke out in a pile of scrap fabric. Many women jumped from the upper floors of the building to their deaths, while others perished inside. The youngest victims were just 14 years old.
This is a grim tale, but also an important one to remember, because the accident paved the way for a number of critical workers' rights and safety laws that we all benefit from today. Sadly, the anniversary also reminds us of the strides we have yet to make to protect New York City's workers.
The latest workers' rights battleground is the fight for a basic living wage law for city employees. The Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act would ensure a minimum $10 hourly wage for workers at businesses renting from city-subsidized developments. (Workers would receive an extra $1 per hour if they aren't offered employer-sponsored health insurance.) Although not particularly sweeping, the law is an important step in achieving a living wage for all workers; a number of other U.S. cities (most notably San Francisco) have passed similar laws, only to expand upon them later.
It's tragic that 146 individuals had to die for workers to get the basic safety measures they deserve. But it's even more tragic that we allow thousands of New Yorkers to suffer day-in and day-out because they can't afford basic health insurance, or to feed their families, or to keep the heat on, or pay rent. That kind of suffering may not be as front-page-news dramatic as were the deaths of the Triangle Factory workers, but it is no less unacceptable.
Here's what Stuart Appelbaum of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union had to say on Friday at a memorial event in New York City (via the New York Observer):
"The most important tribute to Triangle is offered not in words but in deeds: elected officials must ensure that government continues to protect and improve the lives of all working people. That means standing up for a living wage so that countless working New Yorkers no longer feel condemned to poverty, but instead can finally get closer to achieving the kind of economic security they need and deserve."
"Here in New York, as we push to regulate Wall Street, as we push to establish living wages in subsidized developments, as we push to make lives better for today's largely immigrant workforce, the same forces — the Real Estate Board, the proponents of unregulated markets, the free traders — that opposed government regulation of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory a century ago are opposing us now."
Also at the event on Friday, held at the former Triangle Factory site, was City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who is considered a key vote in the living wage battle. Tell Quinn that you want her to honor those who died at the Triangle Factory 100 years ago, and support the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act.