The Great Hall at Cooper Union in lower Manhattan was packed, standing room only on this November 22nd, 1909 day. Garment workers from all over the city came to the same auditorium where Abraham Lincoln had denounced the proliferation of slavery nearly fifty years earlier. They were there to consider an industry-wide strike in support of the striking Triangle Shirtwaist Factory workers. Union leaders (men) droned on for nearly two hours, when suddenly a 23 year old, immigrant union organizer named Clara Lemlich burst up onto the stage uninvited, and said, “I would like to say a few words.” She then turned to her audience and said, “I have listened to all the speakers and I have no further patience for talk. I am a working girl, one of those striking against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in generalities. What we are here for is to decide whether or not to strike. I offer a resolution that a general strike be declared now!” Her peers were wildly supportive. She then led a modified version of an old Jewish oath, “If I turn traitor to the cause, I now pledge may this hand wither from the arm I now raise.” And so began what was soon known as The Uprising of 20,000. The next day, all over the city garment workers walked off their jobs, and met in Union Square Park for a solidarity rally. The eleven week strike saw over 700 arrests. Strikers were being beat by company-hired thugs, and prostitutes, and police often turned their backs, and in some cases even participated in the beatings. Finally it ended with a Peace Protocol, with the hundreds of clothing manufacturers making different deals with their workers. Many companies became union shops where only union workers could be hired. The owners of Triangle Shirtwaist Factory resisted, giving in to only modest wage and hour concessions. The unsafe, over-crowded conditions remained the same at Triangle with doors only opening inward, shabbily constructed fire escapes, a barrel of oil stored on the floor, cloth tailings that were not removed on a regular basis, and incredibly exit doors that were locked during working hours.
Then late in the afternoon on a beautiful spring Saturday (March 25th, 1911), while having tea with a friend near Washington Square Park a woman named Frances Perkins suddenly heard screams and sirens going off. She ran across the park and came upon the horrific site of seeing the first of 50-60, mostly women jumping out of the fire engulfed upper floors, of the ten-story Asch building. Triangle Shirtwaist occupied the 8th-10th floors. In the little more than a half hour that fire raged, 146 people died; 129 of them were women; Italian and Jewish immigrants mostly; the average age was 19, and the youngest, Kate Leone and “Sarah” Rosaria Maltese only 14. The bodies were brought to a covered pier on E