This week marks the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, an event that had a far-reaching impact on workplace safety, the labor movement and the New York political scene. NY1's Bobby Cuza filed the following report.
The event was remarkable if only for the sheer horror: 146 people dead -- mostly young women -- many burned to death on a factory floor, trapped because of a locked exit door. Dozens jumped to their deaths nine stories below rather than burn alive. But it was the societal changes wrought by the Triangle Shirtwaist fire that made it a watershed moment in the city’s history.
"People began to accept that workers had a right to organize unions, to protect themselves against these kinds of abuses. The sentiment went on the side of the workers’ rights on the job. That was the seminal change in New York City. It was a seminal change in America," said Workers United President Bruce Raynor.
The fire led to a number of specific fire safety regulations like mandatory fire drills and sprinklers, and the creation of the Bureau of Fire Prevention.
"It was a turning point, really, for the fire department in terms of relying on codes, and relying on regulations to keep people safe," said New York City Fire Department Commissioner Salvatore Cassano.
Politically, the Triangle fire was a defining moment for Alfred E. Smith, the state assemblyman and future governor who helped lead the investigating commission, which pushed legislation that modernized New York State’s labor laws, serving as a model for the whole country and paving the way for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal 20 years later.
“Out of Triangle, New York becomes, I think, a model state for both unionism, but also for state regulation," said Labor Historian Joshua Freeman.
On Friday, thousands of people, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg, will gather to mark the anniversary outside of the building which still stands on the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street, just east of Washington Square Park. Labor leaders say the 100th anniversary comes at a significant moment, when workers' rights are under attack in places like Wisconsin.
"Workers in Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan are fighting for the right to have their unions, are fighting for the right to be able to bargain collectively, with dignity, as equals. And that’s what these workers gave up their lives 100 years ago for," Freeman said.
Labor leaders point out that poor working conditions haven’t gone away and, in some cases, have just moved overseas.