Reflections on labor unions since the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire

— Hannah Lee

Friday, March 25th was the 100th anniversary of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 146 young female workers.  This tragedy propelled reforms in the conditions of these sweatshops and innovative labor laws were enacted to protect workers.  The division of Fire Prevention was also created as part of the Fire Department.  “Among other restrictions, all doors must now open outwards, no doors are to be locked during working hours, sprinkler systems must be installed if a company employs more than 25 people above the ground floor, and fire drills are mandatory for buildings lacking sprinkler systems.”

Here are some personal reflections on the garment factories in the years since 1911.  My mother was a worker in these factories– still sweatshops– until her retirement.  My family arrived in the United States in 1967 and, in the beginning, she did piecework at home, but the pay was terrible (even worse than at the factories).  When her youngest child (my brother, now a professor of finance at the University of Maryland) started full-day kindergarten, she went to work in the factories.

My stories of the unions are not as rosy as in the history textbooks.  The bosses kept two sets of timecards for each worker.  When the union representatives came by for a visit, the bosses would whip out the “legitimate” ones.  My mother chose to be paid by the piece, instead of the hour, because she didn’t want to be henpecked for her diligence (which was good).  She trained herself to not use the bathroom on the job because they were uniformly filthy.  However, the health insurance benefits from a union membership were invaluable and in her retirement, my mother has volunteered with her union.

Being a concerned mother, she would excuse herself at school dismissal time to walk us home from school, give us a snack, and return to work, putting me in charge of my younger siblings.  She would work until closing time.  (My father worked in Chinese restaurants six-to-seven days a week, so he was never home in the evenings.)

The recent novel by Jean Kwok called Girl in Translation is as accurate to my childhood and upbringing in the world of New York’s garment factories as a novel can be.  Until I read her fictionalized memoir, I’d forgotten how the thick dust in the factories settled on everything, getting into all of our crevices and coating our skin.

The legacy of the ILGWU, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (“look for the union label” was the union song) is long-lasting.  My siblings and I all earned multiple degrees: I received a bachelor’s from Brown, a M.S. in Epidemiology from Columbia, and was an All-But-Dissertation Ph.D. candidate in Environmental Epidemiology at N.Y.U.; my sister earned a bachelor’s from Yale and a master’s in education from Stanford; and my brother also earned a bachelor’s from Brown and a M.B.A. from N.Y.U.  In the next generation: my elder daughter just graduated with honors from the University of Chicago, with a degree in Linguistics .


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