Labor History News

  • 25 Mar 2012 1:38 PM | Posted by GNHLHA
    The article below is sourced from the online blog Lawyers Guns and Money at

    This Day in Labor History: March 25, 1911

    [ 13 ]March 25, 2012 | Erik Loomis

    On March 25, 1911, 146 workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City died when the building in which they worked caught on fire. One of the most important events in American labor history, the Triangle Fire brought attention to the terrible sweatshop conditions of American labor, helped spawn important labor reforms, and became a touchstone for justice advocates over the next century.

    The Triangle Factory, located in the Asch Building at 23-29 Washington Place in New York (today on the campus of NYU), was owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, Jewish immigrants who had made their fortune as “The Shirtwaist Kings.” The shirtwaist, a necessity of women’s clothing during the late Victorian Era, was immensely profitable, but by 1911, the fashion was becoming outdated as American women moved toward modern fashion. In order to maximize profits in a trade with low start-up costs, Blanck and Harris took advantage of the enormous immigrant masses entering New York in the early twentieth century. They set up a sweatshop on 3 floors of the building and hired workers, mostly women, for very low pay. They also hired children. One corner of the factory was known as the “Kindergarten,” where young girls sat for 12 hours days snipping threads. The average working day for all workers was 12-14 hours at least 6 days a week. That included Saturday, which was important because 60% of the workers were Jewish women, as were their employers. During the peak production season, which was eight months of the year, the women were required to work all 7 days. A sign above the elevator read, “If You Don’t Come In On Sunday, Don’t Come In On Monday.”

    Max Blanck and Thomas Harris

    Blanck and Harris claimed they had earned their fortune by hard work and that other immigrants could do the same, although the obvious argument against that is that their primary good luck was arriving in New York earlier than most Jewish immigrants. When workers throughout the New York textile industry struck in theUprising of the 20,000 in 1909, Blanck and Harris stood their ground, criticizing smaller operations who signed contracts with the union, and asserting their right for complete control over the factory. Blanck and Harris hired prostitutes to act as strikebreakers, serving as escorts for scabs, and starting fights with the strikers. The International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) focused its attention on Triangle, as it was the largest company and had the most union-hating employers. The Uprising of the 20,000 was generally a successful action, but Blanck and Harris held out until the end, agreeing to raise wages and slightly shorten hours, but without any sort of union on the factory floor.

    The lack of a union mattered a great deal as workers had no representatives to improve their working conditions or enforce safety rules. Wanting maximum control over its workers, Blanck and Harris ordered all doors out of the factory locked except for one. On March 25, 1911, just as the long workday was ending, a fire broke out on the 8th floor and quickly spread to the 9th and 10th floor. The factory offices were on the 10th; Blanck and Harris escaped, getting to the roof and hopping to another building. Workers on the 8th floor got out. No one told workers on the 9th floor that the building was on fire. They didn’t know until the flames were licking their shoes. There were 250 workers on the 9th floor. A few managed to escape on the elevator, some more on a fire escape, at least until it collapsed from the weight of so many people. But 146 did not escape. They rushed to the second door, but found it locked. They desperately tried to open it but they couldn’t find the key and had to give up. They burned to death or jumped from the windows as a last resort. Fire department ladders only stretched to the 6th floor. Firefighters stretched nets to catch the jumpers, but they couldn’t handle the force of bodies falling from that height.

    The tragedy of the Triangle Fire finally drew public attention to the plight of the sweatshop workers. ILGWU organizers and workers had predicted tragedies in the workplace, though not of this level, but, even though the Uprising of the 20,000 had received a good bit of public attention, little had happened since the strike to improve working conditions and safety. On April 5, 350,000 New Yorkers came out to the ILGWU-organized funeral of seven unidentified workers. New Yorkers quickly remembered that Blanck and Harris had been the most anti-union owners in 1909 and the public excoriated them. As textile leader and overall amazing woman Clara Lemlich said, “If Triangle had been a union shop there there would not have been any locked doors, and the girls would have been on the street almost an hour before the fire started.” One reporter noted, “I remembered the great strike of last year, in which the girls demanded more sanitary workrooms, and more safety precautions in the shops. These dead bodies told the results.”

    The public funeral of the Triangle workers.

    City and state agencies responded to the public outrage by investigating the conditions of the textile industry and the state of the city’s sweatshops. They discovered that half the city’s workers labored higher than fire department ladders could reach, and most worked in factories with conditions far worse than Triangle, with iron bars blocking fire escapes, overcrowded conditions, and wooden rickety buildings. Governor John Dix created the Factory Investigating Commission, led by Alfred Smith and Robert Wagner and including Frances Perkins. ILGWU leaders like Clara Lemlich demanded the commission accompany them on unscheduled factory visits to get the real story. Said Perkins, who personally witnessed the fire, “We made sure Robert Wagner personally crawled through the tiny hole in the wall that gave exit to a steep ladder covered with ice and ending twelve feet from the ground, which was euphemistically labeled ‘Fire Escape.’” The inspections created wide-reaching laws that began the reform of labor conditions in this country, including new standards for lighting, ventilation, and sanitation; fire exit laws, limiting the hours women and children could work, and reorganizing the state’s labor department.

    Blanck and Harris had insured the heck out of the building and received nearly $200,000 from 41 different insurance companies. Shortly after the fire, they tried to open a new factory. Building inspectors fined them for lining up the sewing machines so close that “the girls when seated would have no space to move about or leave their places without all getting up together.” Blanck and Harris were charged with manslaughter on April 11 for keeping the back doors locked in the factory. They paid $25,000 bail each and hired one of the nation’s top trial lawyers, Max Steuer. They managed to delay the trial until December when jury selection began. But when that happened, 300 women met them at the door. Shouted one young girl, “Here are the murderers of poor Stella. Hit them, mamma, for killing my poor sister.” The women chanted “Murderers! Murderers! Kill the murderers!” From that point on, the police controlled the crowd. After the trial, the jury took only 105 minutes to deliver its verdict of not guilty since it could not determine with certainty whether Blanck and Harris knew the door was locked. In 1913, Blanck was in fact charged with locking the door to one of his new factories and was fined the minimum of $20. The following year, the two factory owners were fined for sewing fake consumer labels into their clothing saying the factory met minimum working standards.

    In 1914, Blanck and Harris settled the civil suits against them, paying $75 for each life lost. This only made people more angry because BLANCK AND HARRIS HAD PROFITED OFF THE FIRE!!! Quite literally–they had so much insurance that they cleared $65,000 in profit off their factory burning and workers dying.

    There is also this fascinating document I’d like to share with you. In 1912, the National Association of Manufacturers collaborated with the Thomas Edison Company to produce “The Crime of Carelessness.” This film tried to shift blame for Triangle away from the factory owners and toward worker carelessness. This was part of the NAM strategy to keep the factories union-free and a useful film for placing today’s anti-union madness in historical context. This is a truly disgusting film, though fascinating. Worth 14 minutes of your time.

    Many of the quotes for this piece came from Jo Ann Argersinger, The Triangle Fire: A Brief History with Documents, which is also a great book to teach.

    This series has also covered such events as the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 and the creation of the CIO in 1935.

  • 25 Mar 2012 1:36 PM | Posted by GNHLHA

    Tell them NO EVICTION!

                The Yale graduation and the International Festival of Arts and Ideas

             want the Green. Why can’t the great university and the festival take pride in

           one of the few remaining Occupy encampments and its message of virtue,

               truth and genuine effectiveness in government, industry and society?

                                         Why isn’t Occupy an important Idea?


    And the City


    For Occupy

    Tuesday, March 27th


    The upper Green

  • 25 Mar 2012 10:59 AM | Posted by GNHLHA
    “New Haven’s Garment Workers: An Elm City Story” was shown in its entirety in the concourse of the Legislative Office Building at the State Capitol in Hartford March 5-9, 2012. 

    This was its latest stop on its tour around the state of Connecticut and beyond, and happily coincided with the public hearing before the Education Committee of the State Legislature about the Greater New Haven Labor History Association’s raised bill to mandate the teaching of labor history, the collective bargaining process and the history of existing legal protections in the workplace as part of the Connecticut public school curriculum.  Learn more about the Labor History in the Schools initiative here.

    Next stop for the Garment Workers exhibit: the Southern Connecticut State University’s annual Women’s Studies Conference, April 20-21, 2012.

    Aaron Goode Photograph 

    For further information, please visit the Garment Workers' Exhibit page or contact GNHLHA Director/Archivist Joan Cavanagh at
  • 23 Mar 2012 11:01 AM | Posted by GNHLHA
    Unfinished Business:

    A Panel Discussion on the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and Cate Bourke's memorial installation Crewel Linen: Unfinished Business. What does the past still have to teach us about workplace safety, labor organizing and immigrants' rights?

    Members of the panel are Jennifer Klein, Professor of History at Yale University, Carl Proper, Communications Director for New England Joint Board, Unite Here!, Megan Fountain of Unidad Latina en Accion, and Cate Bourke.

    Moderated by Henry Lowendorf,
    Chair, New Haven Peace Council

    Saturday, March 24, 2 until 3 p.m.
    People's Center,
    37 Howe Street,
    New Haven, CT

    followed by a reception from 4 until 6 p.m. at the

    West Cove Studio,
    30 Elm Street,
    West Haven, CT

    Bourke's centennial/commemorative work in memory of the 146 individual workers who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City on March 25, 1911, is made up of an eight foot length of shirtwaist cloth for every one of the victims, with a name embroidered on each panel.

    The installation is now on view through March 24, 2012

    Friday and Saturday, 10 until 4
    or by appointment, phone 203-500-0268 for directions
  • 17 Mar 2012 8:01 PM | Posted by GNHLHA
    Wednesday, March 21, 2012, 4-5:30pm
    Location: Council Teachers Building, 267 Chapel Street, New Haven, CT
    Parking and entrance in back lot via Saltonstall Ave.

    Open meeting for those interested in working on the legislative initiative for Labor History in the Schools.

    Click here for more info.
  • 28 Feb 2012 12:06 AM | Posted by GNHLHA
    Wednesday, February 29, 2012, 4-5:30pm
    Location: Council Teachers Building, 267 Chapel Street, New Haven, CT
    Parking and entrance in back lot via Saltonstall Ave.

    Open meeting for those interested in working on the legislative initiative for Labor History in the Schools.

    Click here for more info.
  • 13 Feb 2012 2:21 PM | Posted by GNHLHA
    Wednesday, February 15, 2012, 4-5:30pm
    Location: Council Teachers Building, 267 Chapel Street, New Haven, CT
    Parking and entrance in back lot via Saltonstall Ave.

    Open meeting for those interested in working on the legislative initiative for Labor History in the Schools.

    Click here for more info.
  • 02 Feb 2012 1:41 PM | Posted by GNHLHA



    “In a Reed College history survey course in 1965, I heard a brief mention of some big strikes in late 19th century America. I was intrigued and started looking in the college library for books on labor history. There was a short shelf of them, few less than twenty-five years old…

    “I had of course heard about the sit-down strikes and the great industrial union organizing campaigns of the 1930s, though there was actually very little historical writing about them available in the 1960s. I had heard of the ‘Haymarket riots,’ but I didn’t know that more than half a million workers struck in 1886, many of them in a nationwide general strike for the eight-hour day. I had heard of labor leader and socialist candidate Eugene Victor Debs, but I didn’t know anything about the huge strikes in all basic industriesundefinedsteel, coal, and railroadsundefinedin the mid-1890s. Nor did I know anything about the big strike waves during and after World War I and World War II. And I couldn’t find a single book or article dealing with such periods as a general phenomenon…

    “Such actions called up for me a vision of how ordinary people might liberate themselves from those who oppressed them. They showed people who had been divided and apparently powerless coming together for what I would later call common preservation. It showed them confronting and sometimes defeating the greatest powers in the land. Could that story, I wondered, still be relevant?” 

    In his newest book, historian, activist, writer (and member for life of the Greater New Haven Labor History Association), Jeremy Brecher answers that question with a resounding “Yes!” Save the Humans is a multi-layered, nuanced tour de force through the history of 20th and early 21st century  movements for “Common Preservation,” as well as an earnest plea that we apply the lessons learned from them to confront today’s global threats.

    Join Jeremy and the Greater New Haven Labor History Association on Saturday, March 3rd from 2-4 p.m. for a discussion and book-signing at the main branch of the New Haven Public Library, 133 Elm Street, New Haven.

  • 30 Jan 2012 11:59 PM | Posted by GNHLHA
    Statement on Behalf of the Greater New Haven Labor History Association at the Memorial Service of David Montgomery, Saturday, January 28, 2012 at Battell Chapel, New Haven, CT
    Joan Cavanagh

    The Board, members and staff of the Greater New Haven Labor History Association join today with all here to honor our long time member and dear friend David Montgomery, whose words example, and life have and always will continue to guide us as we move forward in our work.

    David was one of the biggest supporters and most active members of the Labor History Association almost from its inception in 1988. He contributed the lead article to the Labor Almanac, a joint endeavor in 1995 between the Labor History Association and the Greater New Haven Central Labor Council. Entitled “One Hundred Sixty Years of Labor’s Struggles for a Better New Haven,” the article discussed, among other things, how the labor movement in New Haven first took root within the town’s early immigrant communities and later in its African American community.

    David was one of the narrators and commentators on the Labor History Association’s award-winning Labor History Bus Tour of New Haven in 1999 and again in 2000. He was a key note speaker at the New England regional conference of labor history associations held in New Haven on October 24, 1992, sponsored by GNHLHA. He was one of the planners and leaders of the Association’s River Street Walking Tour in 2004, which he followed by a presentation and a two hour long question and answer session attended by over 75 people at Fair Haven Woodworks. A recipient of the Augusta Lewis Troup Preservation Award presented annually by the Greater New Haven labor History Association, he was, over the years, often a speaker or panelist and usually a participant in our annual meetings. At our 2008 meeting, which commemorated the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, he gave a sterling presentation and then led a spirited discussion about the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike of 1968 and its long term implications for both the civil rights and labor movements.

    I wrote him an email in March of 2011 to try to entice him back from Pennsylvania to once again join our annual meeting of 2011, which was to focus on the current labor struggles and resistance in Wisconsin. I mentioned that we were going to, among other things, be discussing our Association’s planned legislative initiative to mandate the teaching of labor history in Connecticut’s public schools. I commented somewhat a-historically that such legislation had “ironically” already been adopted in the now labor-embattled state of Wisconsin. David wasn’t able to make the meeting, but he did give me a short history lesson in his reply email. As I read the email, I could almost hear the enthusiastic lilt in his voice that was always there when he warmed to his subject matter: “You [meaning the Greater New Haven Labor History Association] have been up to good work this past year, including the effort to get labor history into the curriculum of public schools,” he graciously commented. Then he continued with this gentle correction: “By the way, it is not surprising that the effort was pioneered in Wisconsin. The state has much in its political past of which it can be proud, including the School for Workers at the university in Madison, the long-lasting Socialist government in Milwaukee, the famous labor history archives at the university, and, of course, the legacy of Fighting Bob LaFollette -- from back in the days when some of the country's best politicians were Republicans (hard as it may be to believe now).”

    In its spring 1980 edition, Radical History Review published an interview with David Montgomery called “Once Upon a Shop Floor”. This was years before the birth of the Greater New Haven Labor History Association, but at its conclusion, David articulated his vision of the work of “radical historians,” and it is one that is surely at the core of what our Association must continue to strive to be about: “When you come right down to it, history is the only teacher the workers have. A central task that all of us face today is going back to square one in our own revolutionary experience. Very clearly, as we survey the great struggles that need to be recounted, we must look with a cold eye at all of that experience to find out where we went wrong, where there were great lessons to be drawn from positive experience, what the propelling forces of historical change have been, and how to make the dynamics of our own movement public knowledge once again. In all my work I’ve tried to look at the long course of development, in part to avoid terms of analysis which have been reified by society, or by our movement, at particular times. But also to show how many long familiar struggles keep reappearing in different forms.”

    Thank you, David, from all at the Greater New Haven Labor History Association for the gift of your words, your example, your life. You are always with us.
Greater New Haven Labor History Association  •  267 Chapel Street, New Haven, CT 06513 • •

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