Rose Rosenfeld was just 17 years old. Born in a small town near Vienna, she had emigrated with her family to the United States in 1909 and settled in New York. She found work at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company who ran a factory in the top three floors of the 10-story building at 23-29 Washington Place near Washington Square Park. The company made women’s blouses, then called “shirtwaists” and employed about 500 workers, mostly young Jewish and Italian immigrant women like Rose. They worked nine hours a day on weekdays and seven hours on Saturdays and were paid $7 to $12 a week, the equivalent of $191 to $327 a week today.
March 25, 1911 was a Saturday. At about 4:45 PM just as the workday was ending, a basket of cloth scraps in a bin under one of the cutter’s tables caught fire, possibly from a discarded cigarette. Within minutes, Rose’s life changed as a blaze spread up and across the three top floors. The owners of the factory had kept the doors locked to prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks or taking scraps of cloth with them when they left. It also served to keep out union organizers who were seeking to organize the garment trades.
But it also prevented the workers from escaping the rapidly spreading fire. The ensuing scene was probably one of the most horrific episodes in the history of New York. Firefighters arriving could not get at the blaze since their ladders were too short. People gathered in the street below watched in shock as the young women, to escape being burned to death, leaped from the windows, their billowing skirts aflame, to their deaths on the pavement below.
When it was over, 146 garment workers, 123 women and 23 men were dead. Rose escaped by somehow being able to make it up to the 10th floor where the company’s executives were and then following them to the roof where people on the roof of an adjoining building were able to pull them to safety.
Much has been written about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire over the years. There have been scores of books, films, historic commemorations and other events in memory of the terrible tragedy and its victims. In its aftermath, numerous laws were passed to safeguard workers from a repeat of the horror. It also led to the growth of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union as workers sought to protect themselves on jobs like this.
Rose Rosenfeld later married a man named Harry Freedman and became a lifelong supporter of unions and a crusader for worker safety, constantly re-telling her story that 146 workers died horrible deaths because owners were not concerned with their safety. She died in 2001 at the age of 107.
We are reprinting below an item that appeared on our Labor News page last year. It deals with na landmark law that was the opening shot in the war against labor, the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 and has continued to this day
Very few people are still around who remember the year 1947 when the US labor movement represented one out three American workers. It came after a decade in the thirties when union organizing hit its peak with the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The CIO provided the militant push that organized the millions of workers in the mass industries – workers who had been ignored by the AFL’s concentration only on skilled craft workers.
And all workers, from skilled to unskilled in one union, provided the worker unity that sustained sit-down strikes in Flint, Michigan, that unionized General Motors and built the United Auto Workers (UAW), strikes in the giant electrical industry that unionized General Electric and Westinghouse and built the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers Union (UE), and strikes in the steel industry that unionized US Steel and built the United Steelworkers union (USW). Labor was flexing its muscles as it entered the post-World War II years and began to take action to improve wages and working conditions of millions of workers.
But the giant companies would have it no longer.Sparked by the developing cold war abroad and the beginnings of the shameful McCarthy era at home, Republicans began a counterattack. Well financed by big money and actively pushing the growing anti-communist scare, they gained control of Congress in 1946. A year later, they enacted what became the centerpiece of the attack on labor with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, overriding he veto by President Harry Truman. The act, passed mainly by Republicans but with the support of a substantial number of Democrats, was the opening gun in the war against unions that has continued to this day and was accelerated after the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. It was the beginning of the policy that revived union-busting as the norm among America’s corporations.
What was the Taft-Hartley Act and how did it provide the fertile ground for the decline of the union movement? For a detailed description of the role this law played in the decline of the union movement over the past 75 years, we highly recommend you click on this link to an article in the June 23 issue of UE News, organ of the United Electrical Workers. It conveys some great lessons for working people today who are fighting to organize unions and rebuild a movement for a more fair and just America.
UE News. 6/23
We describe on this page some episodes in the history of the American labor movement in the hope that it will prove inspiring to the generation of young workers in offices and restaurants and coffee shops and warehouses and factories around our country who are fighting to build their unions, and in the process, to rebuild the union movement today
This current US Supreme Court has people worrying about some of its recent horrible decisions. Now the country is awaiting a decision that could virtually cripple a union’s right to strike (see item Pending Supreme Court case … on then Labor News page of this website). But a reactionary Supreme Court is nothing new. Privileged men in their black robes have long stood in the way of progress in the United States. And their record on decisions favoring workers is a case in point . We cite below one of is more egregious examples:
In 2023, it is worth recalling a decision handed down a hundred years ago. The case was Adkins v. Children’s Hospital. The District of Columbia had enacted a law setting a minimum wage for women and children which was challenged in court. In a 1923 decision that set a standard for twisted reasoning, the Court held that the law was unconstitutional since it interfered with “liberty of contract” which they said was guaranteed by the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment. According to the Court, employers and employees “have an equal right to obtain from each other the best terms they can as the result of private bargaining.”
In his dissent, Chief Justice William Howard Taft noted the reality that ‘employees in the class receiving least pay are not upon a full level of equality of choice with their employer… (and) are prone to accept pretty much anything that is offered. They are peculiarly subject to the overreaching of the harsh and greedy employer.”
This decision was overturned by the Supreme Court in its 1937 decision upholding the National Labor Relations Act, that protected the right of workers and their unions to bargain collectively.
The notion that an individual worker, particularly one in a class that is most exploited, has equal bargaining power with a large corporation, conjures up the image of “equality before the law” satirized by Anatole France, the French writer, in his oft-quoted line, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread,”
Work History News, newsletter published by the New York Labor History Association, Winter/Spring 2023