In 2013 we gave you a short version of the history behind International Women’s Day. This year, the top officers of SEIU-West sat down to talk about IWD and women in the labour movement in the YouTube video below:
We also wanted to highlight one of the events in history that had a major impact on labour legislation and the lives of working women and men in North America, the Triangle Fire.
The Triangle Fire
On March 25, 1911, the industrial fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York killed 146 women. The victims, mainly young immigrant women, had been trapped by blocked exit doors and faulty fire escapes. The aftermath of the fire brought grief and unrest. The fire called into question the working conditions and the absence of safety protections in labour laws that allowed the tragedy to happen.
During a meeting at the Metropolitan Opera House, tension broke out between the upper class and the working class women. The working class thought that if there was no class distinction then measures would be taken to keep the workers safe, but the middle and upper class women thought a bureau of fire prevention would be effective. Just as the meeting was breaking up in disorder, Rose Schneiderman – a Polish born worker that had once led a strike at the Triangle Factory – started to very softly speak. Here is what she said:
“I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting. The old Inquisition had its rack and its thumbscrews and its instruments of torture with iron teeth. We know what these things are today; the iron teeth are our necessities, the thumbscrews are the high-powered and swift machinery close to which we must work, and the rack is here in the firetrap structures that will destroy us the minute they catch on fire.
“This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city. Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred. There are so many of us for one job it matters little if 146 of us are burned to death.
“We have tried you citizens; we are trying you now, and you have a couple of dollars for the sorrowing mothers, brothers and sisters by way of a charity gift. But every time the workers come out in the only way they know to protest against conditions which are unbearable the strong hand of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us.
“Public officials have only words of warning to us – warning that we must be intensely peaceable, and they have the workhouse just back of all their warnings. The strong hand of the law beats us back, when we rise, into the conditions that make life unbearable.
“I can’t talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.” -Rose Schneiderman