Marking the 109th Anniversary of the Triangle Fire | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

Marking the 109th Anniversary of the Triangle Fire

“Today, we mark the 109th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, a catastrophic event in which 146 workers, mostly young immigrant women, were killed as a direct result of abhorrent working conditions and woefully insufficient workplace safety standards. The loss of life was both tragic and avoidable, and sent shockwaves through our city and nation. Outraged Americans demanded that these workers’ deaths not be in vain, and the public outcry that followed brought a renewed sense of urgency to the labor movement and to the fight for stronger workplace protections and fire safety laws,” Workers United Secretary-Treasurer Edgar Romney & New York City Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO President Vincent Alvarez, Mar 25, 2020

Normally, we gather at the site of the blaze to mark the anniversary of the Triangle Fire. We assemble at the corner of Washington and Greene Streets to watch the fire truck ladder rise to the 6th floor, which was as far as it could reach in 1911, as workers burned alive or leapt to their deaths from the factory floors above. This year, we express our solidarity by marking the occasion at home, each doing our part to flatten the wave of infections that threatens to overwhelm or city and our country. Even as we stand apart, we stand together. 

Today, we remember the Triangle Fire in the midst of a pandemic that threatens the lives of countless workers who are providing essential services without adequate personal protective equipment. Nurses, EMTs and other health care workers can’t get the masks they need to protect themselves and their patients from the deadly and highly contagious coronavirus. Warehouse, transportation, and retail workers continue to supply us with with food, fuel, and medicine, despite the risks. Sanitation and infrastructure workers are putting themselves on the line to support core functions of civilization. This lack of basic safety equipment is as unacceptable today as it was 109 years ago. 

Today, we honor the 146 workers who died in the Triangle blaze, discarded by their employers and ignored by their government. We also reflect on the fact that fire was a turning point in the long struggle for worker’s rights. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s future Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, a key architect of the New Deal, watched helplessly as the fire consumed the building. But she would not remain helpless. “The New Deal began on March 25, 1911,” Perkins later said, “The day the Triangle Factory burned.”

The Triangle workers did not die in vain. The struggle for safety, dignity, and democracy at work continues.