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Remembering labor's martyred heroes

100 years ago, the Triangle fire and the deaths of 146 garment workers helped spark a new labor movement.

March 20, 2011|By Alice Hoffman

The Triangle fire, a garment factory blaze that killed 146 people 100 years ago this week, was the worst workplace disaster in New York City until the fall of the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001. Yet despite the fire's place in history, many Americans know nothing about it.

Those who died in the March 25, 1911, fire were mostly young Jewish and Italian women and girls, new immigrants who risked their safety in horrendous sweatshop conditions making women's garments. Foremen frequently locked workers into their workrooms to make certain they didn't take breaks or pilfer cloth; this ensured that for many trapped inside, there was virtually no escape when the blaze began.

The victims either burned alive or leapt from window ledges, some with their hair and clothes on fire as they fell to the sidewalk below. Most of the dead were women, but almost 30 were men. One of the young men was seen kissing a woman at the window before they both jumped to their deaths.

Witnesses reported that best friends looped their arms around each other's waists, jumping en masse, holding tight to one another as they leapt. Those who escaped reported the terror of being locked in by their bosses, watching in horror as their sisters and mothers and best friends fell through the air like cinders.

That same day, bodies were set out on the bloody sidewalk, a mere block from Washington Square Park, so that mothers could search for their missing daughters. The owners of the factory managed to avoid the flames by fleeing to the roof. When brought to court, they escaped criminal action. The families of the dead were sent $75 apiece for their lost daughters. That was all their lives were worth.

And yet the events of that day were a turning point for labor activism. The fire helped to fuel a new labor movement, and it energized the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, which demanded and got significant improvements in the way workers were treated and the conditions in which they worked.

I believe that how we remember and honor our lost heroes defines who we are as a nation. When we forget, we falter — and we often forget. We've forgotten much about our grandparents, immigrants from worlds so oppressive they were willing to work for low wages under wretched conditions, all for a chance at their own version of the American dream.

We need to remember that a national tragedy is made up of individuals — men and women, sons and daughters, husbands and wives — people who were loved and mourned and who deserve to be remembered. We don't want to make this mistake again, anymore than we want to treat workers who are newly arrived as if they were anything less than true Americans.

If we remember our fallen heroes, if we know them by name, maybe then we can remember the dream we still share with those who follow the journey our grandparents made.

In memory of those who were lost in the Triangle fire:

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