Much of the history of labor in the United States is tied to the treatment of immigrant workers. The clip below is from an episode of PBS’s American Experience series focusing on the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire that broke out in March 1911. When the fire broke out, workers were trapped. The fire prevented workers from exiting one stairway while other exits were locked. Over 60 women jumped from the burning building. In the end, 146 workers died, and dozens of others were injured.
In the aftermath of the fire, women, including Polish Jewish immigrant activist Rose Schneiderman, led the fight for workplace safety reform. As a result of the efforts of activists, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, and political reformers, like Francis Perkins, over 60 new labor laws were passed in New York between 1911-1913. Speaking at a public gathering on April 2, 1911, Schneiderman told the crowd it was time to organize. She explained:

This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city. Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred. There are so many of us for one job it matters little if 146 of us are burned to death.

We have tried you citizens; we are trying you now, and you have a couple of dollars for the sorrowing mothers, brothers and sisters by way of a charity gift. But every time the workers come out in the only way they know to protest against conditions which are unbearable the strong hand of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us.

Guiding Questions

  • What kind of work is available for newcomers?
  • Why might immigrants be particularly vulnerable to exploitation at work?
  • Without the power to vote, how can immigrant workers advocate for change?

Related resources:

Union Members Protesting After the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

Join Our Mailing List!