Why Do We Celebrate Labor Day?

On a quiet corner of Greenwich Village, a block away from Washington Square, sits the chemistry department of New York University. But before the building nurtured Nobel Prize winning chemists, it was the scene of one of the biggest workplace catastrophes in the nation’s history – and a catalyst for lasting changes in Americans’ workplace conditions.

Seventeen years after President Grover Cleveland declared Labor Day an official holiday – to celebrate the common worker – the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of March 25, 1911 demonstrated that the reality of workplace conditions in New York’s garment district sweatshops was nothing deserving of celebration.

Located on the top three floors of the ten-story Asch Building, which was constructed in 1901 and advertised as “fireproof,” the factory contained few working bathrooms, outdated heating and cooling systems and poor ventilation. To make matters worse, the building had no overhead sprinklers and just one fire escape.

When fire broke out on the eighth floor, most who were working on that floor and the tenth were able to escape. For workers on the ninth floor, a locked exit, collapsed fire escape and too-short fire truck ladders trapped them, resulting in the death of 146 workers. The company had over 500 employees at the time, mostly consisting of young women and recent immigrants.

The owners of the Triangle Factory were acquitted of manslaughter charges and paid a maximum of $75 to 23 of the victims’ families. Over 350,000 people marched in the victims’ funeral procession, and activists lobbied their local and state leaders to make much needed improvements to the American working conditions. This led to the creation of agencies to regulate workplace health and safety conditions, and strengthened labor union efforts.

In honor of the legacy of reform inspired by the deaths of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory workers, the Triangle Fire Memorial is currently under construction. Set to be unveiled in 2023, the memorial will be placed on the same building in Greenwich Village where the factory once operated.

Today, working conditions in American factories and offices are a far cry from the early 1900s. When we celebrate Labor Day with parades, barbecues, fireworks and other activities, we should also take the time to remember those who fought for the labor rights we enjoy today.

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