Tragedy to Triumph: The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) National President J. David Cox, Sr. made the following statement regarding the anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire:

“Brothers and sisters, Americans have come so far in earning rights for working people. Not just temporary accommodations, but rights. Through collective action, we have earned better contracts, with higher wages, vital benefits, and safer working conditions. But this did not happen overnight. We have done so through years of struggle and sacrifice, and we cannot forget the lessons of those who  came before us, and what they sacrificed to get us where we are.

This Wednesday marks the 104th anniversary of the tragic fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, a horrible blaze that killed 146 garment workers, mostly young women. The doors they needed to escape through were locked. The corridors they could have run through were narrow and cramped. And the owners of the factory who could have fixed these hazards had no reason to make their workplace safer – only to focus on output and profits.

The employees working in the factory were mostly immigrants, men and women who traveled to the United States looking for a better life for themselves and their families. They heard that despite the huge gap between the wealthy and the poor in cities like New York, the United States was a country where they could make good money. They believed it was a place in which they could pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make a life for themselves.

Those workers clocked into work as early as 7 AM and stayed until 8 PM, with no weekends and no health care. They started their careers as early as 15 years old – much older than the workers at many other factories, where children as young as 5 clocked in every morning. They earned only $6 a week, and had to buy their own supplies to complete their work. They worked in cramped and unsafe quarters with little to no regulation or oversight. And most of the workers had no union or representation to stand up for their rights.

The Triangle Factory Fire was an unspeakable tragedy, but something good did come out of it. After the fire, the Ladies Garment Workers Union (LGWU) led a protest for higher wages, shorter hours and extra pay for overtime. They called for better safety conditions, like sprinkler systems in the factories and adequate fire escapes. And despite the protests of business and the imprisonment of many of the strikers, the unions won. These protests, followed by hundreds of others, led to the 40-hour work week, the sick leave, the health benefits, the safety precautions and the child labor laws that we know and love today.

Reflecting on this story, one lesson is clear: the dreams and the struggles of the Triangle Factory workers were not much different than the dreams and struggles of workers today. 

Every day, millions of people go to work dreaming of better pay and benefits for themselves and their families. They believe in a fairer economic playing field where everyone has the opportunity to do well if they work hard and play by the rules. They yearn for safer workplaces with more protections of their basic rights. We have made so much progress on behalf of working families. But brothers and sisters, we have a long way to go as well.

We at AFGE continue to stand up and fight for better pay, benefits and retirement for federal and DC government workers. We stand up for sick leave and paid parental leave for all working people. We stand up for providing the best health care in our VA medical system. We stand up for safer workplaces for our members in the Bureau of Prisons. We stand up for fairer pay and overtime for our members in the Border Patrol and the TSA. We stand up for better staffing and office hours for our members in the Social Security Administration. We stand up for funding for the Department of Defense. And we stand up for all workers to get the representation that they have earned at their workplace.

As a nation, we have come so far, and given millions of workers the safety, fair compensation and dignity that they have earned for a hard day’s work. But we can’t stop here. We must continue to organize, represent, and mobilize to protect what we have, and stand for what we deserve."

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