Friday, March 25, 2011

A Somber Anniversary

TriangleThis past month, I've taken time off work without worrying that my job wouldn't be mine when I came back. I've been able to see my nieces and nephews while they were on their spring break from school, instead of spending their teen years working in a factory. I've had work-free weekends to catch up on errands, chores, and hobbies. Many of my friends and family also enjoy things such as sick leave and safe working conditions.

I wish I could say that these workplace standards erupted spontaneously over the years as the hallmarks of an advanced and humane society. However, the sad truth is that most protections have been fought for bitterly since the Industrial Revolution, and this struggle is not without its martyrs. Today is the one hundredth anniversary of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. The incident of March 25, 1911, is the "deadliest workplace accident in New York City’s history" with 146 casualties, many of them teenage girls sewing blouses in a factory to support or supplement their families' income.

Triangle Shirtwaist CoffinsTwo years earlier in 1909, the Triangle Factory workers were leaders in an effort to unite the employees of all the city's garment factories, leading to a lengthy strike of 20-30,000 workers. As a result of the strike, employees at other factories were granted improvements in hours, wages, and conditions, and the right to form unions for collective bargaining. The Triangle workers earned modest gains in wages and conditions, but their union was not recognized by the factory owners.

While labor reforms were already on the national radar at this time, the horror of the Triangle Fire enabled the general public to understand the plight of factory workers and the need for basic worker protections. Thankfully, many of these protections have not only survived these last hundred years, but more have been added in that time. OSHA, FMLA, worker's compensation, unemployment insurance, and discrimination and harassment protections are things that the workers of the Triangle factory hadn't even dreamed of.

Would you like to find out more about this pivotal moment in United States history? The PBS series, American Experience, has an excellent page with an hour-long film that is a must-see. Cornell University's site, Remembering the Triangle Factory Fire, has timelines, interviews, photographs, and commemorative events. The Santa Fe Public Library has several books and films for different age levels about the fire, and many novels have been written about this event as well.

If nothing else, take a moment today to ponder this avoidable tragedy, and be thankful for the protections it gave us.

Photo of Triangle Fire Coffins courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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