100th Anniversary of the Triangle Fire 100th Anniversary of International Women's Day

Originally called International Working Women's Day, March 8 is celebrated the world over. It was established in 1911 (the same year as the Triangle Fire happened) by European and America socialists, and became forever identified with the activism and tragedy of the women garment workers.

Nearly 150 sweatshop workers, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrant women, died 100 years ago in the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Most of the deaths occurred among those working on the crowded 9th floor where the bulk of the sewing machines were located. People on the other floors were told of the fire and escaped outside, but for long crucial minutes, no one let the seamstresses know. By the time they became aware of the smoke, a guard had locked one of the two doors, a routine "anti-theft" action - i.e. act of owner greed - that cost many women their lives.

For a couple of years before the fire, the workers had been working hard to organize. According to Cornell University,

"The International Ladies' Garment Workers Union organized workers in the women's clothing trade. Many of the garment workers before 1911 were unorganized, partly because they were young immigrant women intimidated by the alien surroundings. Others were more daring, though. All were ripe for action against the poor working conditions. In 1909, an incident at the Triangle Factory sparked a spontaneous walkout of its 400 employees. The Women's Trade Union League, a progressive association of middle class white women, helped the young women workers picket and fence off thugs and police provocation. At a historic meeting at Cooper Union, thousands of garment workers from all over the city followed young Clara Lemlich's call for a general strike.

"With the cloakmakers' strike of 1910, a historic agreement was reached, that established a grievance system in the garment industry. Unfortunately for the workers, though, many shops were still in the hands of unscrupulous owners, who disregarded basic workers' rights and imposed unsafe working conditions on their employees."

There are commemorations of both of these important anniversaries in many towns during March, including one at the former location of the Triangle sweatshop in NY. You can find more info about it here. Participating in such events only adds to our motivation to confront the foul attacks on unions and on women's rights that we are seeing today.

 

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