March 25, 2011 marks the 100-year anniversary of the notorious Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, a disaster widely credited with strengthening the still nascent labor union movement in the United States.1 Francis Perkins, later Franklin D. Roosevelt's secretary of labor, and the first woman appointed to a cabinet position, happened upon the scene of the fire as workers were jumping to their deaths to escape the blaze.2 Perkins later called it "the day the New Deal began."
The tragedy, the deadliest workplace disaster in New York City's history prior to the Sept. 11, 2001 World Trade Center attacks, caused the death of 146 garment workers. Mostly young immigrant women, they died from the fire or jumped to their deaths from the top three floors of the 10-story building. Many were unable to escape the inferno because the plant's managers had locked doors to some exits and stairwells to prevent pilferage and unauthorized breaks from work.3 "141 MEN AND GIRLS DIE IN WAIST FACTORY FIRE" read the New York Times all-caps headline on a front-page article the following day, accompanied by grisly photographs of the event and aftermath.
Perkins later served as chief investigator of the commission charged with investigating factory conditions statewide. Following on the commission's findings, the New York State Legislature passed labor protections for women and children and created a State Department of Labor to enforce them. Labor unions gradually gained strength over the following decades and, as part of FDR's New Deal in the 1930s, strong worker protections were enacted into federal law, including the National Labor Relations Act. But even in the depths of the Depression, substantial numbers of Americans continued to have reservations about the impact of organized labor.
Read the full report A Century After Triangle, Unions Face Uncertain Future on the Pew Research Center's Web site.