Labor Day: Behind the labor movement it commemorates

triangle shirtwaist factory fire_1
The New York Tribune covered the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in great detail. (Courtesy of Library of Congress)

On March 25, 1911, 146 workers died in a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company garment factory on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of the Asch building in lower Manhattan.

"(They) were either crushed to death trying to get out of the building, burned to death, died of smoke inhalation, or jumped from the upper stories to avoid burning to death," said Frank Varney, Ph.D., history professor at Dickinson State University.

The building had only one fire escape, which collapsed during the fire. The doors either opened the wrong way or were chained shut to prevent workers from leaving. Firefighters' ladders were too short to reach the floors on fire. Safety nets ripped as they tried to catch women jumping from the burning building.

Although Labor Day was made a federal holiday in 1894, its creation was the result of a labor movement that battled against poor and unsafe working conditions like the ones that led to the deadly 1911 fire.

"There’s a reason we have holidays like Labor Day, and it’s because of how bad things were for the American worker," Varney said.


The labor movement gave American workers many of the protections they have today.

"Before the labor movement, there were no paid holidays," Varney said. "A few places gave Christmas; that would be about it. There was no such thing as paid sick leave ... The average person worked six days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day, and not for very much money."

People cramped together in housing because they couldn't afford an apartment of their own.

"I could tell you stories about 15 people living in a two room apartment, and the reason there were 15 of them is they were renting out floor space for people to sleep on," Varney said. "These were people who were working full-time. These weren’t people on welfare; welfare didn’t exist. These were working class people, just living terrible lives."

Paid sick days and workers compensation didn't exist either, he said.

If you were sick and stayed home, you didn't get paid. If you were hurt on the job, you were fired. If you broke something at work, you could be charged for its cost.

Children endured the same conditions.

"In New Jersey, around the turn of the century, more than half of children between the ages of 5 and 15 were working full-time, and full-time again being 60 hours a week," Varney said.


The fight for these rights was not an easy one.

"The labor movement really struggled here, as it did pretty much anywhere. The bosses could afford to hire lawyers, and they could afford to hire thugs to beat up strikers and to beat up picketers," Varney said. "Early on, the government tended to be opposed to labor. We have not normally had a very strong governmental support for workers in this country. I’m not quite sure why, but legally we almost always seem to side with corporations, businesses, bosses."

The factory fire was only one deadly event in the violent labor movement.

Varney described railroad strikes that began in the town of Pullman, Illinois.

"It was a company town. If you lived there, you worked for the company; you lived in company housing that you paid rent on, and you bought stuff at the company store, and it was deducted from your salary," he said. "There were cases where … the company raised rents and lowered salaries, so you could conceivably work a 60 hour week and at the end of the week, owe money to the company you worked for. So eventually people went on strike."

The railroad strikes turned violent in some states.

"In some states, the governors called the national guard out to break up the strike. In Colorado, they machine-gunned strikers," Varney said.

In Chicago, what started as a peaceful demonstration turned violent when police opened fire onto a crowd of protesters, sparking what became known as the Haymarket Riot.


"Then there was a mass demonstration in Haymarket Square in Chicago, and some idiot threw dynamite at the police," Varney said. "Violence never makes anything better; it only makes it worse. More people got killed, and several people were hanged. The people who were convicted of this, and some of them were hanged, there was really never much evidence that they had actually thrown the dynamite. The conviction was based on (the fact that) they had organized the demonstration, which isn’t illegal."

The labor movement gave rise to and was pushed along by unions.

"A lot of people figure workers just woke up one day and said, ‘You know. I don’t feel like working. Let’s just screw the company over, and we’ll get some money from doing nothing.’ Of course, that isn’t what happened," Varney said. "The reasons that labor unions existed was because workers were routinely getting really treated badly. Bottom line is people with power never willingly give it up, and the same was true with corporations ... I will freely admit that unions can sometimes bring a lot of problems. Big labor can be as much of a problem as big business sometimes, but there’s a reason unions are here."

As the labor movement grew, unionists started proposing a day to celebrate labor.

"The first state to make it an official public holiday was Oregon, and that happened in 1887, I think. Within seven years, there were 30 states celebrating Labor Day," Varney said.

In 1894, President Grover Cleveland, made it a national holiday.

Originally, a lot of people wanted to make the holiday May 1.

"That was the Socialist Workers Day, and it still is. May 1st is the big holiday in Russia, for example. Cleveland didn’t want to do that because he didn’t want us to associate Labor Day with socialism, which is why they picked sort of a floating holiday eventually," Varney said.

Demonstration of protest and mourning for Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of March 25, 1911 By an unknown photographer, New York City, New York, April 5, 1911. (Courtesy of National Archives, General Records of the Department of Labor)

Kayla Henson is a former Dickinson Press reporter.
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