Remembering The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

New York City Friday marked the 100th anniversary of one of its worst disasters: A fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory that killed 146 people, mostly young women. The city's unions used the day as a chance to voice their anger over recent union setbacks.

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New York City today marked the 100th anniversary of one of its worst disasters: a fire at the Triangle shirtwaist factory that killed 146 people.

NPR's Robert Smith reports that the city's unions used today to voice their anger over recent union setbacks.

(Soundbite of drums)

ROBERT SMITH: They marched with replicas of 100-year-old garments: the tailored shirtwaists that the young women were making up on the eighth floor of a building in Greenwich Village. Each shirt had a name.

Unidentified Man #1: I'm carrying Mary Lebenthall's shirtwaist.

Unidentified Woman #1: Becky Rhines.

Unidentified Woman #2: I'm carrying Sadie Nussbaum.

SMITH: Do you know anything about her?

Unidentified Woman #2: No. Most of the girls, nothing was known about them. They were workers, and they were lost in the crowd, except for this fire.

SMITH: New York City has had lots of death and sadness over the last couple centuries. There have been other big fires. But Ryan Gillam says the Triangle shirtwaist is remembered because of what it stood for.

Ms. RYAN GILLAM: Because it's not just about a fire. It was when there was a total breakdown between workers and managers, bosses. This fire exemplified all of that going wrong.

SMITH: As the procession reached the site of the fire, now a laboratory for NYU, the somber part was over. It turned into a full-on union rally - brightly colored hats, angry signs, plenty of sing-alongs.

Unidentified Woman #3: (Singing) I'm sticking to the unions 'til the day I die.

SMITH: Sort of an odd choice of lyric for a memorial, but this wasn't about tone. The appalling safety conditions in the Triangle factory became a rallying cry for unions 100 years ago. And with unions under attack again, they're going back to what worked. Bruce Raynor of Workers United.

Mr. BRUCE RAYNOR (Workers United): We come together to remind ourselves why those workers were killed by the greed of their bosses, that those workers were fighting for their rights to have a union in that workplace.

SMITH: By the end of the rally, the anger at the greedy bosses of yore morphed easily into outrage at recent union setbacks in Wisconsin and New Jersey. Senator Chuck Schumer came awfully close to blaming Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker for the fire.

Senator CHUCK SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): And to the families of the victims, we will not let right-wing ideologues and Scott Walker Republicans undo your loved ones' legacy.

(Soundbite of bell)

Unidentified Woman #4: Essie Bernstein(ph).

(Soundbite of bell)

Unidentified Man #1: Jacob Felser(ph).

(Soundbite of bell)

SMITH: The reading of the 146 names brought the crowd back from the union-rally frenzy to more of a memorial spirit. People looked up to the eighth floor of the building, where so many of the victims had jumped instead of being consumed by flames.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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