Thursday, 24 March 2011

The Triangle Fire: 100 Years Later the Lessons Still Resonate

A hundred years ago tomorrow, a fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist workshop on New York's garment district. Within 18 minutes, 146 people were killed, most of the women, all of them working long hours on a Saturday in conditions that were terrible. Exits had been blocked, and many workers threw themselves from the windows as they attempted to flee the flames. Those are bodies lying on the sidewalk picture, apparently taken while the building still burned.

The New York Times has a commemorative story today, which talks about the galvanizing effect the disaster had on public opinion. Among the people who witnessed it was Frances Perkins, who went on to become Secretary of Labor in FDR's New Deal government. Before then she was instrumental in bringing in safety standards and working conditions in New York State, and she described later as "the day the New Deal began.”

The anniversary is especially important as forces in the US and Canada continue their attempt to undue much of the good that came out of the movement to correct injustices in industry. Attacks on worker protections and the right to join unions are just the latest in the movement to be "fiscally responsible" and to "increase competivity."

Nonsense. Those bodies lying on the sidewalk and the burnt-out factory space should be images that rally support for the fight against forces of reaction in North America. They also should remind workers in the rest of the world who are working in conditions similar to those prevalent here a century ago, that things can change for the better if people work together.

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