Yesterday marked the 103rd anniversary of the most pivotal moment in the history of labor rights. On March 25, 1911, a fire started in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, a sweatshop in Manhattan that employed immigrant women—some as young as fourteen—for $7 per week. On the day of the fire, the factory’s owners locked the workers inside the fifth, sixth, and seventh floors of the industrial building. Because there were no sanctions protecting sweatshop workers from hazardous work conditions, this was common practice. When the fire started, there was no way out. 146 workers, most of them young females, burned alive. Some jumped to their deaths so that families could claim their bodies.
The aftermath of the fire incited a nationwide uprising. It became clear to the public that, left to their own devices, corporations could not be trusted to self-regulate and were generally unconcerned with the safety of their workers. The importance of unions was never more clear than it was 103 years ago today.
Infamously anti-union corporations such as Target, Amazon, and Wal-Mart continue to call the existence of corporate conscience into question. We're still squabbling about a federal minimum wage that hasn't been livable for years. And globally, things aren’t much better — a similar incident to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire occurred in Bangladesh in 2012. With union membership at historic lows, can we really trust corporations to protect the worker simply because it's the right thing to do?
"Harlan County, USA," an Academy Award-winning documentary and the single most important film in labor history, highlights the struggles of a population of workers that has been grievously marginalized. Coal mining is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, yet acclaimed documentarian Barbara Kopple shows us that big corporations have little regard for safety or adequate compensation where miners are concerned. Watch the film for free on SnagFilms, Indiewire’s parent company, below.