Today in Labor History March 25, 2020

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire

Coxey’s Army (Common-Wealth Army) headed to Washington DC to demand economic reform. Coxey was a wealthy businessman and Populist who proposed a plan of federal work relief on public roads to be financed by Treasury notes to end the depression of 1893. When Congress refused to pass this bill, Coxey declared, We will send a petition to Washington with “boots on“.Coxey and his lieutenants were arrested by police and about 50 people were beaten or trampled. – 1894

A federal court issued the first injunction against a union under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. The case was brought against the Workingman’s Amalgamated Council of New Orleans for interfering with commerce. The law was a major victory for bosses. – 1893

Coxey's Army heads to Washington DC, 146 die at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, coal dust causes explosion killing 111 miners and more. Click To Tweet

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City killed 146 people, mostly women and young girls who were working in sweatshop conditions. As tragic as this fire was for poor, working-class women, it is estimated that over 100 workers died on the job each day in the U.S. in 1911. What was most significant was that this tragedy became a flashpoint for worker safety and public awareness of sweatshop conditions.

The Triangle workers had to work from 7:00 am until 8:00 pm, seven days a week. The work was almost non-stop. They got one break per day (30 minutes for lunch). For this, they were paid only $6.00 per week. In some cases, they had to provide their own needles and thread. Furthermore, the women were locked inside the building to minimize time lost to bathroom breaks.

A year prior to the fire, 20,000 garment workers walked off the job at 500 clothing factories in New York to protest the deplorable working conditions. They demanded a 20% raise, a 52-hour work week and overtime pay. Over 70 smaller companies conceded to the union’s demands within the first 48 hours of the strike. However, the bosses at Triangle formed an employers’ association with the owners of the other large factories. Soon after, strike leaders were arrested. Some were fined. Others were sent to labor camps. Armed thugs were also enlisted to beat up and intimidate strikers. By the end of the month, almost all of the smaller factories had conceded to the union. By February 1910, the strike was finally settled. – 1911

Heavy deposits of coal dust caused an explosion in the Centralia Coal Company’s Mine No. 5 in Centralia, Illinois, killing 111 of the 142 miners at work at the time. Following the disaster, UMWA President John L. Lewis invoked the union’s right to call memorial days and as a memorial to those killed at Centralia, the miners did not work for six days. – 1947

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled employers may sometimes favor women and members of minority groups over men and whites in hiring and promoting in order to achieve better balance in the workforce. – 1987

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