Perkins would describe the scene in lectures later: “They couldn’t hold on any longer. There was no place to go. The fire was between them and any means of exit. It’s that awful choice people talk of — what kind of choice to make?” She added: “I shall never forget the frozen horror that came across as we stood with our hands on our throats watching that horrible sight, knowing that there was no help.”
The sewing factory employed more than 500 people, who worked long hours for low wages, in wretched and unsanitary conditions. They turned out “shirtwaists” — blouses with puffed sleeves and tight bodices popularized by the “Gibson Girl.” The factory owners had locked the fire-escape doors. The seamstresses were trapped when fire raced through the sweatshop just before closing on March 25, 1911.
In less than 20 minutes, 146 people, mostly Italian and Jewish immigrant women and girls, were dead. The last six victims were officially identified just a few weeks ago. Triangle outraged the public and offered a grisly example of how powerless workers were without collective bargaining, because unionized garment workers received better pay and had safer conditions. And it galvanized Frances Perkins.
Twenty-two years later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed her secretary of labor, the first woman to serve as a Cabinet secretary. During her 12-year tenure, she directed the formulation and implementation of the Social Security Act, one of the most important pieces of social legislation in our history. Among other extraordinary accomplishments, she helped create unemployment insurance, the minimum wage, and the legislation that guarantees the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively. She also established the department’s Labor Standards Bureau, a precursor to what is now the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Perkins clearly had the Triangle victims in mind as she weaved the nation’s social safety net.
Now I have the same job she once held, with the responsibility of repairing and strengthening that net. And although our passion for workers’ rights came from different paths (she was the daughter of privilege; I am the daughter of immigrant union members), I understand the impact that moment had on her work.
I had my own moment involving a sweatshop. Although it was not as horrifying as that afternoon was for Perkins, it fueled my beliefs. In 1995, 75 Thai immigrants were freed from a so-called factory in the city of El Monte, Calif., part of the district I represented in the state Senate. They had been forced to eat, sleep and work in a place they called home.