100 Years After Triangle Fire, Are Workers Safer?

This week marks 100 years since a fire at the Triangle Waist Company factory in New York City killed 146 people, most of them poor young women. The event is often cited as the catalyst for modern workplace safety rules, and a major boost to the nascent union movement. A century later, the debate over the nation's labor laws continues to rage.

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Tomorrow marks 100 years since a terrible fire in New York City, a fire that had far-reaching implications for working conditions in this country. It was called the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. It killed 146 people, most of them young women. A century later, the Triangle fire is the subject of a week of commemorations. The events come at a time when the fight over the nation's labor laws is again in the spotlight. From New York, NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE: March 25, 1911 was a warm day in New York. It was a Saturday, the last day of the work week for the hundreds of young Jewish and Italian women, some as young as 14, who sewed women's dresses at the Triangle Waist Company near Washington Square. Many were collecting their pay and getting ready to leave when the fire broke out.

Ms. MINNIE JACOBSEN: You heard this screaming, yelling fire, fire. So I says to my friend, Eva, let's run. So she says, no. I says, you come with me. So I took her by the hand and we went.

ROSE: Years later, Minnie Jacobsen told an NPR producer how she managed to escape. But 146 others weren't so lucky. The Triangle factory occupied the eighth, ninth and tenth floors of a modern skyscraper a block east of Washington Square. As hundreds of girls rushed to get out, the fire escape and elevators failed. And Dartmouth College historian Annelise Orleck says the door to the stairwell on the ninth floor was locked.

Professor ANNELISE ORLECK (Dartmouth College): People began to jump out of the windows. And you could smell blood and smoke and hear breaking bones. The whole thing was over in a half hour. But the horror was so extreme that no one who saw it would ever forget it.

ROSE: Thousands of New Yorkers watched powerlessly from the streets, and hundreds of thousands more turned out to watch a funeral procession for the victims a few days later. The Triangle Fire eventually led to tougher workplace safety rules in New York and nationwide. And Orleck says it helped boost the cause of labor unions around the country.

Prof. ORLECK: There have been bigger disasters. There have been more recent disasters. But the faces of those girls, the stories of those girls, gave a resonance that other disaster didn't have. And so many people, myself included, felt this was an important moment to talk about what this fire tells us about why unions are necessary.

ROSE: The 100th anniversary of the Triangle fire is prompting a new outpouring of sympathy for those girls, from a memorial ceremony on Friday to talks, conferences and artistic performances.

Many of those events have been planned for several years, but they come at a time when the U.S. labor movement is on the defensive, with legislatures in Wisconsin and elsewhere voting to strip public workers of their rights to collective bargaining.

Mr. DAVID VON DREHLE (Author, "Triangle: The Fire That Changed America"): The Triangle fire speaks to the kind of quandary that labor finds itself in today.

ROSE: David Von Drehle is the author of "Triangle: The Fire That Changed America."

Mr. VON DREHLE: There's a kind of an existential crisis as labor leaders look at the 21st century and try to ask how can unions be as relevant to workers today as they were 100 years ago.

ROSE: Today the garment industry has largely left New York for countries in Asia and elsewhere, countries that have fewer protections for workers. Just last year, dozens of factory workers jumped to their deaths at a factory fire in Bangladesh, an event Dartmouth historian Annelise Orleck finds eerily familiar.

Prof. ORLECK: This is not ancient history. It's very real. It's very present and it's in all of our closets.

ROSE: That's a point Orleck and others hope to make this week as they honor the victims of the Triangle fire.

Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

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