Can Recalling the Triangle Fire Re-Ignite the Labor Movement?


For most Americans, the events of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire are encased in old, fading photographs and a vague and distant understanding of the plight of garment workers in the early 20th century. The image of 146 women literally imprisoned in a factory and forced to burn alive is horrific, and yet is too easily dismissed as simply a part of the past.  

Unions came together last week to mark the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Fire with parades, concerts, and rallying cries for workers' rights. Their call to organize could not be more urgent in light of recent events in Wisconsin, Ohio, and several other states that seek to curb unions' rights to collective bargaining and pensions, among other benefits.

In the wake of a deep recession that was caused by Wall Street's recklessness, politicians from all ends of the spectrum have successfully made the public employee unions their scapegoat.  

Governor Paul LePage of Maine has taken one of the more surprising steps to sever his ties to unions. LePage has ordered that a mural depicting workers in historical context be removed and that conference rooms in the Labor Department named after prominent figures in the union movement such as Frances Perkins, who gained prominence after the Triangle Fire, have their names changed. According to LePage, he seeks to reflect "neutrality" towards employers and employees alike. But, neutrality is far from his real concern. He’s looking to show conservative voters in Maine that he sides with corporate interests, not middle class workers.

Tea Party politicians are not the only ones to blame for this disdain for unions. 100 years ago, factory labor was a core aspect of America’s economy, and factories existed quite prominently in urban centers. Most people were related to someone who worked in a factory, and when the labor movement gained power, many Americans felt the direct impact of the horrible working conditions and risks associated with factory employment.

Today, however, it is far easier to distance oneself from the daily realities of physical labor. The U.S. has not done nearly as much to improve working conditions in the textile industry as it has done to outsource it to countries with lax (if any) labor laws and workers who will toil for endless hours for as little as $1 a day. This tragedy is one distant enough to bury our guilt below a layer of denial, even after we check the label on our clothing and it reads "Made in Sri Lanka."  

The conditions that impoverished laborers face in sweatshops all over the globe is an important reminder of America's past and, to a certain extent, our well-hidden present. Over 80,000 farm workers in New York alone are not represented by a union, and are fired for attempting to organize themselves and negotiate for better pay. Work life in America is still replete with deadly hazards - just last year, 11 workers were killed on a BP oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico due to safety violations.

One of the more powerful moments in the Triangle Fire's centennial celebration came when union members joined together in a traditional labor song. The refrain is simple: "there is power in a union." These are fighting words to conservative elected officials like Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin. If he and LePage have their way, union voices will be silenced and American workers risk losing the basic rights that are fundamental to their livelihood. 

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons