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Labor Day Reflections

For most Americans and Canadians, myself included, Labor Day is less a holiday than an indication that summer is really over -- and perhaps a chance to squeeze in one last trip to the beach.

Technically, though, it's about giving workers a day off and recognizing the labor movement.  It's thus particularly appropriate that I found myself standing at the site of one of the worst tragedies in the history of the U.S. fashion industry, the Triangle fire, reading a plaque posted by the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union.

On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Waist Company factory near Washington Square in New York.  By the time it was extinguished, 146 workers -- mostly young immigrant women -- had died.  Some were asphyxiated, some incinerated, and some lost their lives jumping from the 10-story building in an attempt to escape the flames.  The door that would have allowed many of the victims to escape was apparently locked, in violation of the law, to prevent employees from taking unauthorized breaks or stealing. 

It is an interesting footnote to history that the Triangle factory owners were actually design pirates, one of whom is described by author David Von Drehle as "more copyist than creator."  Although the owners were acquitted after a murder trial presided over by a biased judge who believed that he himself had been unfairly held responsible for a tenement fire while he was a city housing official, their company never fully recovered.  By Von Drehle's account this was no great loss to the industry, since only three years after the tragedy "the company was caught sewing counterfeit Consumers' League labels into its garments -- faking the official seal of decent workplace conditions." 

The tragedy's denouement continues the Labor Day theme on a more positive note:  New York and ultimately the nation were galvanized by the horrifying story, and sweeping workplace safety reforms followed.  Today the site of the fire is an NYU building, and the events of 1911 have been largely forgotten in the shadow of more recent tragedies like our own 9/11.  But if you're in New York some Labor Day, walk by the northwest corner of Washington Place and Greene Street, and pause for a moment in history.