March 25, 2018 will be the 107th anniversary of the deadliest workplace disaster in NYC history prior to 9-11: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.
It was significant not because 146 workers died, but because it instigated reform. At the time workplace safety was barely regulated and rarely thought about . . . except, perhaps, by the workers themselves. Other workplace disasters had occurred in the past and would again in the future. So why was the Triangle different?
One reason was a woman named Clara Lemlich. In my novel, The Triangle Murders, she appears as a feisty young woman who wanted to better the plight of the garment workers. Indeed, she was. In my novel she is beaten by a gang of thugs and rescued by Cormac Mead. Indeed, she was. (In truth, she was beaten but not rescued by Cormac or any other policeman.)
Clara Lemlich, a skilled draper and member of International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union Local 25, encouraged interested shirtwaist makers to meet secretly with the union and the Women’s Trade Union League to discuss workers’ needs and the union’s goals. Despite the risks, many went on strike in September, 1909. In an attempt to satisfy some workers, Triangle owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris formed the “Triangle Employees Benevolent Association” a company union, and installed relatives as officers. They also announced that any employee who supported ‘another union’ would be fired. Photographer: unknown, 1909 Photo courtesy the Kheel Center, Cornell University:
Clara worked as a draper at Leiserson’s waist factory. She told stories of how workers were followed to the restroom and hustled back to work, lest they steal precious fabrics. She relayed how workers were persistently shortchanged on their pay and sometimes even charged for the use of materials, such as thread. And, at the day’s end, they lined up a single unlocked door to be searched before they exited.
She had had enough. In 1906, along with several other women, Clara joined the ILGWU, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. Together they formed Local 25, to serve female waist makers and dressmakers. (A shirtwaist, by the way, is a blouse – See Clara wearing one in photo.) In many ways, they had to fend for themselves, for men in the unions did not take them seriously.
Clara was instrumental in organizing the female workers from shop to shop to strike for better working conditions. She made a difference. Now 107 years later, women like Clara can still make a difference in reforming injustices.