One young victim's grave. The Hebrew Free Burial Association

Today is the 100th anniversary of one of the most significant events in garment-making and labor history.

On Saturday, March 25, 1911, near quitting time, a fire broke out on the 8th floor of New York City's Triangle Waist Company and quickly spread to the 9th and 10th floors. Within minutes 146 of the 500 employees had died in the blaze. The seamstresses—mostly young women who had recently immigrated to the US—were trapped, locked inside by the management. Numerous safety violations made their rescue impossible. The women who didn't burn alive jumped to their deaths, to the shock of the crowd on the street.

Detail, History of the Needlecraft Industry (1938), by Ernest Fiene, High School of Fashion and Industry. A mural commissioned by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). From the New Deal Network

The horror of the tragedy casts a shadow even to this day.

{See WNYC News Remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, 100 Years Later for the many events taking place in New York this year in memory of the tragedy.}

After the fire, public sentiment strongly favored increased safety standards and humane working conditions, and workers flocked to strengthening unions. Progress was made, much due to that terrible March day.

{Must see: Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives at Cornell University's Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Website}

Shirtwaists, PBS

From the Cornell exhibit:

This incident has had great significance to this day because it highlights the inhumane working conditions to which industrial workers can be subjected. To many, its horrors epitomize the extremes of industrialism.

The tragedy still dwells in the collective memory of the nation and of the international labor movement. The victims of the tragedy are still celebrated as martyrs at the hands of industrial greed.

Period editorial cartoon

On March 25 I always sorrowfully remember the young workers. I strongly believe that a century later we should not be debating the importance of organized labor.