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Secretary of Labor Julie Su on the Worker Movement 113 Years After the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

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The fire spread quickly. On that Saturday in March of 1911, black smoke billowed out of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory near Washington Square Park in New York City.

The panicked workers inside, many of them young immigrant women and some as young as fourteen, cried out for help and tried to flee, but they found locked exit doors and broken fire escapes. So they climbed out of the windows and onto the ledges of the building, jumping to their deaths to be spared from the engulfing flames. Soon, hundreds of bystanders looked up in horror and began hearing thud after thud of bodies hitting the street below.

From accounts of that day, we know that a young woman on the window ledge gave a speech before plunging to her death, but with the noise and chaos of the fire no one could hear what she was saying.

In all, the fire claimed 146 lives in 18 minutes.

Among the bystanders was a young woman named Frances Perkins. Today, we know her as the first woman to serve as United States Labor Secretary—the first woman to serve in the Cabinet of any U.S. President – and she is widely regarded as the most consequential leader to ever hold the post.

This Women’s History Month, I’m reflecting on Frances Perkins’ legacy and how she turned the unheard voices of those immigrant women into a call to action. Frances became a driving force behind programs that generations of Americans have relied on for economic security and dignity, including a nationwide minimum wage, health and safety regulations, restrictions on child labor, and more.

In our democracy, each generation has a duty to take the baton of progress from those who came before us and to keep striving for liberty and justice for all. I believe the same is true for workers’ rights. That’s why I keep a portrait of Frances Perkins above my desk, in the building named after her that’s home to the Department of Labor.

While our country has come a long way since that horrific fire 113 years ago, we still have lots of work to do to heed the calls for justice from voices that are too often drowned out.

I saw this early in my career. In 1995, 72 Thai garment workers were being forced to work behind barbed wire and under armed guard in a suburb of Los Angeles called El Monte. These workers, who were overwhelmingly women, were trafficked to the United States. They had been lured by the promise of the American dream, only to find themselves confronting injustice, just as the Triangle factory workers had decades earlier.

Once these Thai garment workers were discovered, they did the unimaginable. They fought back. I was privileged to be their attorney at the time, and we filed a first-of-its-kind lawsuit against the companies up the supply chain that the workers had been sewing for, which launched a historic campaign for corporate accountability.

For generations, industries with predominantly women and immigrant workforces—like the clothing and textile industry—have flouted the law, exposed workers to dangerous conditions, and failed to pay minimum wage and overtime. To create change, it has taken workers using their voices to fight for their basic rights. I’ve asked my team at the Department of Labor to use every tool we have to support and empower workers in that fight.

For example, earlier this year, we recovered more than $1 million for 165 workers whose employer had denied them overtime wages and then tried to conceal the wage theft. To date, this is the Department’s largest settlement ever for California garment workers.

In December of 2022, in a suburb of Chicago, a 29-year-old mother of two was killed at work while she was cleaning heavy machinery. This was not the first time that workers at this facility had been gravely injured. The company had failed to provide basic safety training for their employees. The Department of Labor investigated these violations and issued a penalty of $2.8 million to hold the company accountable. Although no amount of money can address the tragedy of the loss of a worker's life, we must enforce laws to prevent it from happening again.

In addition to enforcing laws that protect workers, in the Biden-Harris administration we’re making sure that women, women of color, and people who have historically been shut out of opportunities can get good-quality jobs. Today, in the skilled construction trades—jobs that often come with good pay, worker protections, and a union—women make up just four percent of that workforce. But women account for 95 percent of the child care workforce, in which they often don’t make a living wage or have the bargaining power to change those conditions. So at the Department of Labor, we’re working to increase job quality across industries, including for domestic care workers. And last year, we awarded $5 million in grants targeted toward increasing the number of women in the infrastructure, manufacturing, and clean energy industries—jobs that come with family-sustaining wages, benefits, protections, and the chance to join a union.

Both Frances Perkins and I were chosen to serve transformational Presidents who embraced the fight to build worker power in our country. President Biden promised to be the most pro-worker, pro-union President in history, and during this administration, workers—including those in women-dominated fields like health care, hospitality, and teaching —are speaking up. At the bargaining table, workers are winning.

Years before Frances Perkins witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, workers at the factory had tried to raise the alarm about the dangerous conditions by marching in the streets. People with the power to help them ignored their cries for justice. I often think of the one young woman who gave a speech to the crowd gathering below her, before jumping to her death.

What was she saying?

It’s a haunting question that should linger in our minds, and we should transform it into our own call to action.

We can all do our part. As consumers we can decide where to shop for clothes and what to buy. We can all demand that businesses follow the law and respect workers’ rights. We can all resolve to listen to the voices of working people and their demands for justice.

The Department of Labor and the Biden-Harris administration will continue to answer that call—the call of the women who came before us—with vigilance. We are fighting to enforce labor laws, uphold safety standards, and empower workers to speak up, speak out, and organize. As we remember those who lost their lives in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, we reaffirm that we cannot rest until that work is done.


Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue


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