Marking centennial of Triangle Shirtwaist fire, Twin Cities panel sees labor parallels today


With the current countrywide focus on unions and collective bargaining rights, a March 6 panel of historians and labor activists sought to put the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and the legislation that followed it into a present day context. Jewish Community Action (JCA) hosted a film screening and panel discussion marking the upcoming centennial of the fire, the first of several events to be held during March, April, and May celebrating and reflecting on issues relating to labor, immigration, and social justice.

The fire, which occurred on March 25, 1911, was one of America’s worst industrial accidents, causing the deaths of 146 workers. In the course of half an hour, the fire swept through the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the factory. Doors to the stairwells had been locked from the outside by the factory managers, trapping workers, and many chose to jump to their deaths rather than to burn.  

The majority of the victims were Jewish and Italian immigrant women, some thought to be as young as 14 years old.

The Triangle Shirtwaist fire came on the heels of a series of strikes held in response to poor conditions in the garment factories: one strike involving 20,000 shirtwaist workers in November 1909, the other comprised of 60,000 cloakmakers in July 1910.  Both strikes helped bolster membership in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU).

These strikes, combined with the moral outrage caused by the fire, galvanized the ILGWU and reformers in the New York Legislature to create the Factory Investigative Committee, with American Federation of Labor (AFL) President Samuel Gompers serving as one of nine commissioners.

The committee’s work led to the passage of multiple bills, which allowed for greater oversights and punishments for the violations of labor laws.

Before screening the film, Minnesota AFL-CIO President Shar Knutson addressed the crowd on the impact of the fire. “These deaths,” she said, “forced Americans to see the cold hard truths” regarding unprotected labor.

“If we aren’t vigilant today,” she reminded the crowd, “these rights can be taken away.”

After the film, Veronica Mendez of Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha  introduced the evening’s panel of speakers, which included organizer Liban Ali of UNITE-HERE Local 17; Hy Berman, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Minnesota; Randy Croce of the University of Minnesota Labor Education Services; Riv-Ellen Prell, Professor of American Studies at the University of Minnesota; and Jesus Castillo of CTUL, with Mendez serving as translator.

While panel members offered their perspectives on the fire, organized labor, and what makes them important to us, it was Castillo’s story that brought the history lesson back to the present day.

Castillo said that he immigrated to the United States from Mexico in search of better work, and until recently had been working as a cleaner for National Floor Maintenance, who contracts cleaning jobs from Lunds grocery stores, among others.

When Lunds recently switched cleaning services for some of its stores, Castillo and others were laid off.  CTUL is pushing to get Lunds and other stores to create a code of conduct for dealing with subcontracted employees.

From the crowd, UFCW 789 organizer Doug Mork, whose union represents workers at Lunds stores, said that the cleaning jobs used to be in-house. With the rise of outsourced cleaning work, Mork said, “it’s become a feeding frenzy between contractors,” forcing down wages.

Wages, said Castillo, have steadily gone down while the workload has nearly doubled.

While we often imagine that the most egregious of labor rights violations are a thing of the past, Riv-Ellen Prell said that often in the domestic garment industry, as in others, little has changed. “The people are different, and the clothes are different,” she said, “but the story is the same.”

The main difference, she continued, is that “before the immigrants were here legally and now they’re here illegally.”

The JCA will continue to explore the issues of legal and illegal worker issues when they host the premiere screening of Luis Argueta’s film abUSEd: The Postville Raid on April 17.


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