Thursday, November 15, 2012

These Women Had To DIE So YOU Can Have Better Working Conditions

Unions have gotten a bad rap lately, especially by Republicans. The GOP has made union a dirty word and while any organized group is open and vulnerable to corruption, unions are there for a reason: To protect workers from poor working conditions, unfair rules and making sure they receive fair wages. I’m about to share a gruesome story that impacted union, safety and labor laws.

On March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City caught fire and 146 of the women who were working there under extreme sweatshop conditions were killed.

Most of the women who worked and died in the factory were Jewish and Italian immigrants and were between the ages of sixteen to twenty-three. They endured long hours—usually ten-hour days, six days a week. Workers earned approximately $1 a day. The common practice of locking the doors and blocking stairwells in order to prevent ‘pilferage and unauthorized breaks' resulted in a horrific disaster when fire struck on the eighth floor just before quitting time.

A cigarette was blamed for the fire, although there is some dispute. Smoking in the factory was prohibited. When firefighters arrived, their ladder only reached to the sixth floor. Women on the eighth, ninth and tenth floors jumped to their deaths in order to avoid being burned alive. Others died of smoke inhalation
Sidewalk after the fire

From Wikipedia: “Terrified employees crowded onto the single exterior fire escape, a flimsy and poorly anchored iron structure which may have been broken before the fire. It soon twisted and collapsed from the heat and overload, spilling about 20 victims nearly 100 feet to their deaths on the concrete pavement below.”

Years later, Louis Waldman who witnessed the scene, had this to say:

“One Saturday afternoon in March of that year — March 25, to be precise — I was sitting at one of the reading tables in the old Astor Library... It was a raw, unpleasant day and the comfortable reading room seemed a delightful place to spend the remaining few hours until the library closed. I was deeply engrossed in my book when I became aware of fire engines racing past the building. By this time I was sufficiently Americanized to be fascinated by the sound of fire engines. Along with several others in the library, I ran out to see what was happening, and followed crowds of people to the scene of the fire.

A few blocks away, the Asch Building at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street was ablaze. When we arrived at the scene, the police had thrown up a cordon around the area and the firemen were helplessly fighting the blaze. The eighth, ninth, and tenth stories of the building were now an enormous roaring cornice of flames.

Word had spread through the East Side, by some magic of terror, that the plant of the Triangle ShirtWaist Company was on fire and that several hundred workers were trapped. Horrified and helpless, the crowds — I among them — looked up at the burning building, saw girl after girl appear at the reddened windows, pause for a terrified moment, and then leap to the pavement below, to land as mangled, bloody pulp. This went on for what seemed a ghastly eternity. Occasionally a girl who had hesitated too long was licked by pursuing flames and, screaming with clothing and hair ablaze, plunged like a living torch to the street. Life nets held by the firemen were torn by the impact of the falling bodies.

The emotions of the crowd were indescribable. Women were hysterical, scores fainted; men wept as, in paroxysms of frenzy, they hurled themselves against the police lines.”

This tragic disaster led to legislation requiring improved safety standards as well as spurring the growth of The International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union which fought for and resulted in better working conditions for sweatshop and textile workers.

As a teen in high school, I can’t remember learning about HERSTORY. I must have learned something regarding women’s rights, the right to vote and suffrage, but if I did, it’s long gone. This 2012 election brought the plight of women into my focus and the more I learn about it, the more interested I am in spreading the word. All the talk of rape, sluts and extreme abortion bans awoke the fire and passion in my soul – and I don’t say that lightly – to help all women, and especially young women, and the men who care about them, realize what the women before us had to deal with in order for YOU to have rights. Forgetting this will start the erosion of these rights. It already has. Just ask Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, Todd Akin, Richard Murdock, Michele Bachmann, Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney and on and on and on…..

Women plunged to their deaths because (male) employers didn’t want them to take a break.

Remember that.

A similar fire that killed 112 employees at a Walmart supplier in Bangladesh has prompted a workers-rights group to take action, calling on the world's biggest retailer to improve its safety efforts.
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  1. Thank you for sharing. It's important to remember history (herstory), in order not to repeat it!

  2. Frances Perkins became a Fire Safety Inspector for the State of NY after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. She went on serve on the NY State Factory Commission and in 1933 was appointed as the first woman cabinet member, Secretary of Labor, by President F. Roosevelt. An exhibit of the fire and a transcript of a lecture Perkins gave can be found at the Cornell University library web site.

  3. My grandfather was a immigrant union coal miner. My father was a union worker. I'm not. Wish I did a union - especially when I was younger. This is a horrible story, but so important to tell. We've lost our memory of what going backwards really means.

  4. My mother, who was born in New York, worked in the office of Frances Perkins for a while in Washington D.C. It was quite something to have a female cabinet member.

  5. Kimberly,

    Thank you for this and your perspective. Come join us as United 4 Equality (U4E) wages a peaceful end to gender inequality in America's constitution via the Equal Rights Amendment by 2015 campaign.

    Cheers to your awakening,
    Carolyn Cook
    Founder, U4E

  6. This is a stark reminder that we cannot let our guard down in fighting the GOP's crazy war against women and our workplace safety, among so many other issues of equality. It is way past time for the Equal Rights Amendment to become part of our Constitution.