100-year-old tragedy still reverberates

Friday marks the 100-year anniversary of the deadly fire in New York City that brought about workplace safety laws. In 1911, a fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company killed 146 workers locked inside the building in Greenwich Village. It galvanized the fledgling labor movement.

By 1911, there were already labor unions fighting sweatshops in lower Manhattan. The Ladies Garment Workers Union had been active for 10 years. But the Triangle Shirtwaist was impossible to ignore: fire forced burning women and girls–most of them Jewish immigrants–to jump from 10th-story windows to escape the blaze.

“The strikes did one thing, but now that the evidence was right there on the ground—burned-up bodies on the ground,” said Jeff Hornstein, president of the Philadelphia Jewish Labor Committee. “That created a whole new awareness of public pressure.”

Soon after, New York state passed laws for workplace safety standards, including fire escapes and sprinkler systems. It also created more powerful labor unions.

Mark Stier of the Jewish Social Policy Action Network is launching a campaign, inviting people to promise not to buy clothes made in sweatshops.

“It can go to legislation, which would seek to ban city government and even the private sector from selling clothes that are made in horrible conditions,” he said.

A documentary about the fire and its aftermath has just premiered on HBO.

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