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New York Remembers Triangle Fire of 1911


New York City marks 100th anniversary of deadly factory fire.

The centennial commemoration of the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire became a rally for organized labor Friday, as hundreds marched and vowed to resist efforts to weaken unions in state capitals across the country.  Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer drew loud cheers when he pledged to fight “right wing ideologues” trying to curb worker protections.

The rally in New York’s Greenwich Village neighborhood took place outside the former Triangle factory building, which burned March 25, 1911.  Earlier, many people hoisting signs designed to look like shirtwaist blouses and bearing the names of the dead marched form Union Square several blocks south to the 10-story building, which is now part of New York University.

The Triangle fire killed 146 people and helped to galvanize the U.S. labor movement.  The victims were mostly young immigrant women, many of whom jumped to their death to escape the flames.  The tragedy prompted many improvements in fire safety across the country, such as sprinkler installation and laws mandating fire drills.

Days after the fire, 100,000 mourners marched in a funeral procession through the streets of New York, while another 250,000 lined the route.  Their grief built support for the right of garment workers to unionize.

Speakers repeatedly criticized Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker, who pushed through legislation earlier this month to eliminate public workers’ right to collective bargaining.  The new law has been temporarily blocked by a county judge.

Several other Republican governors, citing their states’ dire money problems, have made similar efforts to weaken public employee unions, saying the pension and benefits unions have negotiated in the past are unsuitable over time.

U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, who spoke at the ceremony, offered her support for unions pushing back. “Today we honor workers in communities all across this great country protesting loudly the actions to strip them of collective bargaining of their right to have a voice in the workplace. We applaud you.”

Senator Schumer went further, saying Walker and others “want to drag out nation back to 1911.”

“Today some on the far right want to rob workers of their hard-earned collecting bargaining rights.  They want to fray the social safety net under the false pretense of fiscal austerity,” he said.

President Barack Obama, in a proclamation recognizing the 100th anniversary of the fire, urged people across the country to participate in ceremonies honoring the workers who died in unsafe conditions. “Working Americans are the backbone of our communities and power the engine of our economy.”