THE TRIANGLE SHIRTWAIST FACTORY FIRE:
FROM TRAGEDY CAME CHANGE
14 February 2011
In the early 20th century, immigrants from Europe flooded Ellis Island in droves in search of “streets paved with gold” which they believed to be found in the United States. The majority of these immigrants settled in New York City to live in tenement housing and find work in the “30,000 factory floors and sweatshops that were located in Lower Manhattan. Each year, 612,000 workers, mostly immigrants were turning out one-tenth of the industrial output of the United States. A quarter of a million men, women and children labored without any regulations.”3 “The majority of garment workers were made up of Southern Italian and Eastern European Jewish immigrant women. They ranged in age from 15 to 23 and many spoke little English.”2 Their days were long. On average, workers put in “eleven hours, but most often they were sixteen to twenty hours, six days a week for which they were paid about $6 per week.”1 The women were subjected to intolerable, brutal working conditions where if you were sick, you came to work sick for fear of being fired. While on the job, it was common practice to be locked into your work space unable to go anywhere at-will. The nightmarish conditions were likened to working in a slave factory. “The doors were locked to keep out union organizers, to keep the women focused on their jobs, and to prevent the workers from stealing material.”2 “The hissing of the machines and the yelling of the foremen made it unbearable. Paychecks were docked or the workers were fired for humming or talking on the job.”3 The bathrooms were located outside and the workers were made to ask to be dismissed to use them. The shirtwaist makers were paid by the piece produced and speed was everything. The quality, however, was not important. “In some cases, they were required to use their own needles, thread, irons and occasionally their own sewing machines which they carried on their backs.”1 The “shirtwaist”, which is another name for a woman’s blouse, had a high neck, puffed long sleeves and was tightly fitted at the waist. It was “one of the country’s first fashion statements that crossed class lines. The booming ready-made clothing industry made the stylish shirtwaist affordable even for working women. Worn with an ankle-length skirt, the shirtwaist was appropriate for any occasion – from work to play – and was more comfortable and practical than fashion that preceeded it, like corsets and hoops.”1 The garment workers had the beginnings of representation to address implorable conditions, as basic as it was, when on “June 3, 1900 the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) was founded in New York City by representatives from seven local East Coast unions. The union represented both male and female workers who produced women’s clothing. Though affiliated with the more conservative American Federation of Labor for most of its history, the ILGWU was unusual in representing both semi-skilled and unskilled (automated) workers.”8 Although the ILGWU was formed, it did little to impact the working conditions at the factories. So, on “November 22, 1909 the ILGWU called a meeting in the Cooper Union Hall to consult its membership and map out a strategy.”8 The hall was packed full and there were many speakers who spoke endlessly. They promised their support but feared retaliation by the employers in the form of firings and physical harm. “Clara Lemlich, a seamstress and union member who was 19 and already badly beaten for her part in union involvement, came forward and took the stage. She called for an immediate strike of all the garment workers and her motion was resoundingly endorsed.”1 This was to become known as “the largest strike of women in the history of the United States.”1 Within days, “more than 20,000 shirtwaist makers, from 500 factories, walked out and joined the picket line at Union...
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