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From the Triangle Tragedy, Unprecedented Reform

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The tragic Triangle shirtwaist factory fire that killed 146 young women and girls -- most of them working class Eastern European immigrants -- 100 years ago this Friday paved the way for unions to organize workers in record numbers. The fire also engaged women in politics in a way that was unprecedented. It moved New York officials to put new workplace safety laws in place as well.

One of the labor groups that seized the moment was the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, or the I.L.G.W.U., which represented several thousand skilled male garment workers and unskilled female garment workers in the early 1900s.

Most of its members were Jewish Eastern European and Italian immigrants who worked 60-hour work weeks in crowded, unhygienic garment factories.

"They tried to shield us from that," said Douglas Levin (pictured below right), an 88-year-old former cutter and I.L.G.W.U organizer, of the back-breaking work performed by his parents, Harry and May. Both of them — Jewish Russian immigrants — declined to talk much about the state of the New York City garment factories they cut and sewed in.

Douglas Levin, ILGWU organizer and former vice president, in the 1980s. Bust of David Dubinsky in background."It was something they would try to forget rather than relive," he said. "The conditions were horrible."

Those conditions — which included locking workers into factories during their shifts — moved young union members like Levin’s father to strike. Picketing, in those days, was often a risky proposition.

"He lost an eye at one of the strikes," said Levin. "My father was conducting a strike, and obviously, he was doing his usual very efficient job of it. And a couple of hoodlums came to visit him and they had a longshore hook with them. And that's how they got 'em. They hit him in the eye with the hook."

Samuel Gompers and other political activists and labor leaders addressed Shirtwaist workers at Cooper Union November 22, 1909. In 1909, the I.L.G.W.U. brought 20,000 garment workers out on strike over sweatshop conditions in the so-called Uprising of 20,000. A year later, 60,000 cloakworkers struck as part of another walk-out called The Great Revolt. The I.L.G.W.U. won the right to arbitration after that, and reportedly represented 90 percent of the city’s cloakmakers.

"In the garment industry, you had an arbitration clause from the cloakmakers and that came from Louis Brandeis," said former 79-year-old garment worker and I.L.G.W.U. organizer Emmanuel "Manny" Leventhal (pictured top left). Brandeis was a progressive Jewish court justice. "We were the first union that had arbitration."

Leventhal's parents were also garment workers. His father, Samuel, was a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant who was a union collar maker working in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and his mother, Rose, was a seamstress. Leventhal remembered his father said he once went out on strike for a whole year from 1929 to 1930 with 20,000 other workers while working for GGG Clothes. That was a big financial commitment for a man supporting seven children. Manny also recalled going on Friday nights with his father to Workmen's Circle meetings, which was a progressive Jewish political organization.

The AsOther groups like the National Women's Trade Union League (N.W.T.U.L.), which was a group of middle and upper class women, were also growing.

After the fire, the league sent a questionnaire to factory workers about workplace safety and then presented the workers' grievances at a rally in front of the Metropolitan Opera House. Thousands attended, moving the state to create a Factory Investigating Commission to assess workplaces in New York. The city formed the Bureau of Fire Prevention, which required stairwells, fire alarms, extinguishers and hoses be installed in all buildings, according to the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

The following year, the legislature passed eight bills addressing workplace sanitation, injury on the job, rest periods and child labor. In 1913, the Factory Investigating Commission recommended that 25 new bills be passed mandating fireproof stairways and the safe construction of fire escapes, that doorways be a certain number of feet wide, and that older multi-storied buildings be inspected. In 1916, smoking was also outlawed in factories. In the '30s, the New Deal included many of these provisions on the federal level.

In 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt passed the National Industrial Recovery Act. As a result of the legislation, which protected workers' rights to join unions, the I.L.G.W.U. added 100,000 members to its ranks.

In 1968, the garment workers' union had reached its peak with 460,000 members, and its membership had changed from Italian and Eastern European immigrants to Latino and Asian immigrants from China, Vietnam, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Mexico. Employers were moving their garment operations out of union strongholds like New York and overseas where labor costs were lower and workplace laws were weaker.

Union Made

The garment workers' union hemorrhaged members, and in 1995, when it merged with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union to form Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (U.N.I.T.E.), it was a shadow of its former self. Now, the workers are part of a unit called Workers United, which is part of the Service Employees International Union.

"I'm very despondent about that," said former I.L.G.W.U. organizer Douglas Levin. "When I was growing up and I met people in the shops, they were very protective of what they had and wanted to build on it."

On Friday, Workers United is set to commemorate the centennial of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire — and the union members and workplace safety regulations that came with it. The march will start at Union Square at 9:30 a.m. and end at the corner of Washington and Greene, near the site of the factory.

I.L.G.W.U. workers

Top photo (left): Chair of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union Retirees Emmanuel "Manny" Leventhal (Photo by Abbie Fentress Swanson/WNYC). Second photo (left): The Asch Building where the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire took place on March 25, 1911. (Photo by Unknown photographer, March 25, 1911, courtesy of The International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union Archive, Kheel Center, Cornell University). Top photo (right): Douglas Levin, I.L.G.W.U. organizer and former vice president, in the 1980s; Bust of David Dubinsky in background (Photo: courtesy of Douglas Levin). Second photo (right): Samuel Gompers and other political activists and labor leaders addressed Shirtwaist workers at Cooper Union November 22, 1909 (Photo by Brown Brothers, November 22, 1909, courtesy of The International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union Archive, Kheel Center, Cornell University). Third photo (right): Posted on flickr by user kilgub. Bottom photo: I.L.G.W.U. workers at a rally. (Photo courtesy of UNITE-HERE)

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