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 26th St so families could conduct the gruesome task of identifying their loved ones, if they could.
New Yorkers were gripped with an immense feeling of grief and mea culpa. A meeting was called on April 2nd at the old Metropolitan Opera House to see what could be done so that these young women did not die in vain. The meeting became tense as people from different socioeconomic groups started squabbling - that until a young, immigrant, union organizer, named Rose Schneiderman started to speak. She held her audience spell-bound with her angry, chastising speech. Decades later Frances Perkins who was in attendance said, “..Wonderful, what a speech she made.” After the meeting, and that incredible oratory, a safety commission was formed. Ms. Perkins became the lead investigator, and their mission expanded into looking at all aspects of factory life in the over 2,000 factories that were inspected in New York state. Over thirty new laws were passed, and many of them were emulated by other states.
At no time were the feelings of guilt and sorrow probably more evident than on a cold rainy April 5th day, when between 80-120,000 people gathered in and around Washington Square Park where a funeral procession was to begin for the victims of the fire. It was led by six horses pulling an empty hearse, followed by victims’ families, survivors of the fire, and garment workers from throughout the city. It is estimated that another 200-400,000 people lined the streets of the route towards, and up 5th Ave.
This tragedy caused union enrollment to soar. People started to feel a sense of empowerment, and knew that there was strength in unity. Religious groups, community groups, unions, radicals, and reformers all banded together, putting aside their differences for the greater shared goal of improving people’s lives. And they did not ask for change, but rather they demanded it.
The social advancements in this era, and in the decades that followed were made possible by people who had courage and were willing to make tremendous sacrifices so that they, and their progeny could live a life with dignity. And it is undeniable that most of us and our loved ones, past and present benefited greatly from the pain that those people endured to secure those gains. What we have forgotten is that - it is a never-ending battle to keep what we had inherited. The crisis that we find ourselves in today begs the questions; Do we have an economic system that can be adapted to a sustainable world in which not only the environment is taken into account, but where the peoples’ well-being is considered more important than profits? And the next more important question is; Do we as a people possess the mettle that our ancestors had to make the changes that we must make? Well..
It was said, “The New Deal began March 25th, 1911,” and the woman who said that was the first woman Cabinet member, Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins - Yes that same Frances Perkins whose tea was interrupted on that fateful, shocking, life-changing day for her, all those years ago.