Hundreds of people gathered Friday in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village neighborhood to mark the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire that killed 146 people and helped galvanize the U.S. labor movement. Many said they had come to honor the victims and show their support for labor unions, which have been targeted in state capitals across the country.
Hoisting signs designed to look like shirtwaist blouses and bearing the names of the dead, activists marched from Union Square several blocks south to a rally in front of the New York University building where the fire took place. The victims were mainly young immigrant women, many of whom jumped to their deaths to escape the flames.
U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer were scheduled to speak.
The fire on March 25, 1911, started on the eighth floor of the building and quickly spread to the ninth and tenth floors. Firefighters’ ladders reached only to the sixth floor, and they were unable to reach the workers trapped above. The tragedy prompted many improvements in fire safety across the country, such as laws mandating fire drills.
Days after the Triangle 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.
Chuck Helms, a representative of the Hudson County Labor Council of New Jersey, said he had come to the ceremony because he believed workers’ rights were fading.
“I cannot let my children or my grandchildren go back to that time,” Helms said. “You know we are moving back. Not just unions, middle class in general is moving back in that direction. America has got to get out and protest.”
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