Exactly 100 years ago today there was a fire on 29 Washington Place in New York City. The fire was important for a few reasons: the top three floors of the building housed a factory where immigrant women worked 52 hours per week sewing women’s blouses (called shirtwaists); the women had little or no protection for their safety; when a lit cigarette started a fire they were trapped since the doors were locked to prevent theft or the workers from going to the bathroom. There were also no fire alarms; for many of the workers, their first indication of trouble was the fire itself.
By the time the fire was extinguished 146 people were dead; they were either incinerated by the fire or died by jumping to their deaths to escape the flames.
In the aftermath the factory closed. This did not lead owners and managers of factories to institute reforms. It did, however, give unions (particularly the International Ladies Garment Workers Union) and the state legislators the moral authority to institute reforms to protect workers. Among people who belong to unions, this is an important anniversary.
Unfortunately 100 years after the deaths of these 129 women and 17 men, the union cause is again under attack. Union membership continues to decline and unions continue to be seen as impediments to progress. They are not, however, impediments to safety. This anniversary should remind us that union membership has given all of us many of the things we take for granted: the five day work week, the 8 hour day, and basic safeguards against danger.
Let us all pray for the 146 Americans who died 100 years ago today, and thank them for the awareness they gave us. And think about them whenever you see a fire escape.