100 years ago today, a fire struck New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Company building. The fire, which was likely caused by an accidental cigarette tossed into a waste bin, spread quickly – trapping hundreds of garment workers (mostly women) inside, and killing over 150 people.
The Forward (then called The Forverts) founder, Abraham Cahan, wrote a stark editorial two days after the fire which read: “The entire neighborhood is sitting shiva. Every heart is torn in mourning. The human heart is drowning in tears. What a catastrophe! What a dark misfortune!”
The fire in itself was tragic enough, but the real tragedy was the light it shone on the harsh, unsanitary, sweatshop working conditions inside the factory – just one of many sweatshops that kept the Lower East Side’s economy churning at the expense of the people running it. The one silver lining of the horrible incident was that it ultimately led to a strengthening of the unions, and some of the most sweeping workers’ rights and labor safety reforms the country had ever witnessed.
Unfortunately, while many gains have been made, 100 years after the fire, workers’ rights are still in jeopardy. Worker abuse still happens. Sweatshops are still a reality. And unions are facing new and challenging opposition. That is why it is so important to view anniversaries like today’s as a reminder that we still have work to do to ensure safe, fair labor conditions for all.
There are many ways to volunteer to support workers’ rights today. Here are a few opportunities for you to get involved:
- Volunteer with Orthodox social justice organization (and Repair the World grantee) Uri L’Tzedek’s Tav Ha’Yosher program to ensure just working conditions in kosher restaurants, or apply for their summer fellowship (applications being accepted now.)
- Get involved with Repair the World grantee, the Jewish Organizing Initiative’s fight to secure fair labor rights for farm workers in Florida.
- Attend the Food Justice Seder co-hosted by Pursue, Uri L’Tzedek and Hazon in New York City.
- Volunteer with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice’s Shalom Bayit: Justice for Domestic Workers campaign.
Meanwhile, for more information on the history of the fire, Abe Cahan’s influence on social reforms, and what it means for us today, read “Why the Triangle Fire Matters Still” by David Von Drehle in the Forward.
And for another inspiring read, check out “Around the Nation, a Rebirth of Jewish Social Justice,” by Amy B. Dean and Simon Greer, also in the Forward.