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Frances Perkins, 1911

by Heather Cox Richardson in Letters from an American

On March 25, 1911, Frances Perkins was visiting with a friend who lived near Washington Square in New York City when they heard fire engines and people screaming. They rushed out to the street to see what the trouble was. A fire had broken out in a garment factory on the upper floors of a building on Washington Square, and the blaze ripped through the lint in the air.

The only way out was down the elevator, which had been abandoned at the base of its shaft, or through an exit to the roof. But the factory owner had locked the roof exit that day because, he later testified, he was worried some of his workers might steal some of the blouses they were making. 

“The people had just begun to jump when we got there,” Perkins later recalled. “They had been holding until that time, standing in the windowsills, being crowded by others behind them, the fire pressing closer and closer, the smoke closer and closer. Finally the men were trying to get out this thing that the firemen carry with them, a net to catch people if they do jump, the[y] were trying to get that out and they couldn’t wait any longer. They began to jump. The… weight of the bodies was so great, at the speed at which they were traveling that they broke through the net. Every one of them was killed, everybody who jumped was killed. It was a horrifying spectacle.” 

By the time the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire was out, 147 young people were dead, either from their fall from the factory windows or from smoke inhalation. 

Perkins had few illusions about industrial America: she had worked in a settlement house in an impoverished immigrant neighborhood in Chicago and was the head of the New York office of the National Consumers League, urging consumers to use their buying power to demand better conditions and wages for workers. But even she was shocked by the scene she witnessed on March 25. FOR MORE

Photo: 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; General Records of the Department of Labor; Record Group 174; National Archives.

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This holiday was founded to celebrate the achievements of hard-working Americans, and it’s a holiday that here at The Fairness Project, we hold close to our heart.

Support the Fairness Project was born out of the labor movement, and we’re proud to be carrying the legacy of union organizers as we fight for higher wages, better benefits, and economic fairness. 

We’ve won 20 of the 21 ballot campaigns we’ve worked on. We’ve delivered health care for over 800,000 people across the country by expanding Medicaid and we’ve helped put over $19 billion into the pockets of workers by raising the minimum wage. This work is only possible because of the generations of labor leaders who established the minimum wage in the first place and continue to fight to make health care a human right. 

This Labor Day, we’re celebrating all of the hard-working individuals who have fought with us to get ballot measures passed to improve the quality of life for working people in America. 

women in politics, womens history, WOMENS LIVES

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