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The Centenary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and the Need to Organize

March 25  marks the 100th anniversary of a tragic, pivotal moment in history, when 146 mostly young New York garment workers, all but 17 female, died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.  Many were immigrants, who came to find the American Dream and went to work in a Manhattan sweatshop on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of a building near Washington Square.  They put in nine hour days, six days a week, hundreds of workers on each floor, surrounded by piles of flammable fabric.  Some of the piles were so large that they blocked the exits that could have saved lives on that terrible afternoon.

When the fire started around 4:30 p.m., it spread quickly.  Within minutes, the workers were caught in an inferno.  The fire trucks, which arrived quickly to the scene, were not able to help.  The ladders could not reach the victims.  The water from the hoses could reach the 6th floor, but no higher.  Many of those on the floors above leapt to their deaths.  An eyewitness later described the crowds who gathered on the street below as “horrified and helpless.”

The bodies of six workers were so badly burned that they were not identified until last month, February of 2011, when a remarkable researcher named Michael Hirsch was able to track down their identities.  A recent article in The New York Times noted that their burial in early April of 1911 was a culmination of collective grief.  “Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers turned out in a driving rain for a symbolic funeral procession sponsored by labor unions and other organizations,” the paper noted, “while hundreds of thousands more watched from the sidewalks.”

It is difficult today, after 100 years, to fully appreciate how the horror of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire changed America.  These young workers knew their workplace was unsafe.  Two years earlier, they had tried to form a union.  They had tried to exercise their fundamental right to bargain collectively to improve the safety of their hazard-strewn sweatshop.  They had walked in picket lines.  But they had not succeeded.  The trauma of the Triangle tragedy moved a nation to pick up the fallen banner of these workers and fight for the rights they had been denied.

Unions and other organizations, including the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and the Women’s’ Trade Union League, set out to improve working conditions at sweatshops like the Triangle Factory through collective bargaining . They also organized to force the adoption of fire safety measures in New York that served as a model for the entire country. “The Triangle fire became a central moment in the history of the labor movement and in particular of the ILGWU,” says the Cornell University Library website. “It endured in the collective memory of its members as a symbol of the evils that made it necessary for workers to organize into unions.”

Even today, this tragedy demonstrates why unions are so important in the lives of working Americans, and why working men and women continue to organize and fight for workplace safety and better education for dangerous jobs.  It’s why leaders like Megan Burger, a tour guide at the U.S. Capitol, organized more than 130 tour guides and visitor assistants last year to make sure they had a voice at the table when issues of security are being discussed.  It’s why correction officers come together to make sure that they have the proper equipment and safety standards when dealing with dangerous inmates under stressful conditions. It’s why LaTonya Johnson, the owner/operator of a licensed family child care facility in Milwaukee, fought so hard for the collective bargaining rights that Gov. Scott Walker has stolen with his recent anti-worker legislation.

As was true a century ago, the key to success is organizing.  On Monday, the White House will host an event to commemorate the tragedy of the Triangle fire by focusing on the work of women around the country who are fighting to improve conditions on their jobs and in their communities.  U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis and Valerie B. Jarrett, Senior Advisor to President Obama, will host a Women’s History Month forum with women who are organizing and making a real contribution to progress for all working Americans.

Deanna Vizi, a child care provider from Genoa, Ohio, and a member of AFSCME Council 8 will be among the speakers at the forum.  She recently fought for three years to gain union recognition for 3,500 dedicated professionals who care for the next generation in the Buckeye State.  “Being a union member is important to me,” Deanna says.  “Many voices together are better heard.  Although I work independently, I know that I have an entire team ready and willing to support me at any time.”

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was a turning point in the development of broad public support for the reforms that America desperately needed if it was to be free of the corporate abuses and excesses of the Gilded Age.  It helped Americans see the difference between right and wrong.  It had a profound influence on politics, culture and the first stirrings of the New Deal. Today, one hundred years later, this terrible and tragic event can still teach a new generation about the need to pull together, to organize and to fight for the common good.

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Gerald McEntee

Gerald McEntee

Gerald W. McEntee is the International President of the 1.6 million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), one of the most aggressive and politically active organizing unions in the AFL-CIO. Since 2006, 145,000 women and men have changed their lives by forming a union with AFSCME. McEntee was first elected AFSCME President in 1981 and was re-elected in July 2008 to another four-year term.

As a Vice President of the AFL-CIO and chair of the Political Education Committee, McEntee is a key leader of the labor movement and its political efforts. Under McEntee’s leadership, the federation created its highly successful and much imitated voter education and mobilization program, which increased the number of union household voters to a record 26 percent of the electorate in 2006.

McEntee has long been a leader in the fight to reform the nation’s health care system. He chairs the AFL-CIO’s Health Care Committee and is a co-chair of Health Care for America NOW!, a national grassroots coalition that has launched a $40 million campaign to guarantee quality, affordable health care for all Americans.

McEntee is a co-founder and chairman of the board of the Economic Policy Institute, the preeminent voice for working Americans on the economy. He led the successful fight to stop President Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security, was an outspoken proponent for increasing the federal minimum wage, and is one of the nation’s leading advocates for America’s vital public services.

For his efforts to improve the lives of working families, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights presented McEntee with its prestigious Hubert H. Humphrey Award in 2004.

Before assuming the presidency of AFSCME, McEntee began his distinguished career as a labor leader in Pennsylvania in 1958. He led the drive to unionize more than 75,000 Pennsylvania public service employees, which at that time was the largest union mobilization in history. He was elected Executive Director at the founding convention of AFSCME Council 13 in Pennsylvania in 1973 and an International Vice President of AFSCME in 1974.

McEntee holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from LaSalle University in Philadelphia. A native of Philadelphia, McEntee and his wife Barbara live in Washington, DC.