Here in California, we are choking on smoke…again. The wildfires are raging in what we now call “Fire Season.” Our beloved people, trees, and properties are going up in flames. Our beautiful Lake Tahoe, located on the border of California and Nevada, is being evacuated. (1) Naturally, this makes me think of some of the events of 1911. I’m not talking about Ronald Reagan or L. Ron Hubbard’s births; I’m talking about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and its legacy on labor rights. 

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory workers had a horrific work environment. Workers were required to provide their own tools. They earned on average $6.00 a week by working all seven days. There were no employee bathrooms, as bathroom usage was considered an unnecessary and time wasting luxury.

As a result of this policy, factory foremen locked the workers inside the factory during their shifts. On March 25, 1911, when the top story caught on fire, the employees could not escape as the entire 10-story factory went aflame. Within thirty minutes, 146 of the 500 workers were dead, many of them lept from windows to their death. (2) This was preventable. 

When we prioritize profits over people, people suffer. For years, the factory workers tried to improve conditions, but it took a disaster for the neglect to become apparent. The remaining workers and many other factory workers went on strike. Unions were formed ( International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU)) and the negligent business owners were forced to make concessions toward better pay, workplace safety, and letting workers pee. 

This lingering and exhausting global pandemic has also laid bare problems that our government and many employers have neglected. Workers have died, employees have had to leave work to homeschool and care for their children, and provide care for the ill and disabled. The government has not set an example of correcting inequalities, and many corporations have followed their lead. Women, especially Women of Color, have borne the brunt of these inequalities. 

“COVID-19 is hard on women because the U.S. economy is hard on women, and this virus excels at taking existing tensions and ratcheting them up. Millions of women were already supporting themselves and their families on meager wages before coronavirus-mitigation lockdowns sent unemployment rates skyrocketing and millions of jobs disappeared. And working mothers were already shouldering the majority of family caregiving responsibilities in the face of a childcare system that is wholly inadequate for a society in which most parents work outside the home. Of course, the disruptions to daycare centers, schools, and afterschool programs have been hard on working fathers, but evidence shows working mothers have taken on more of the resulting childcare responsibilities and are more frequently reducing their hours or leaving their jobs entirely in response.” (3)

Tragically, preventable catastrophes continue to harm people because we aren’t righting our wrongs. We aren’t applying the lessons that were learned. When you employ people, you have a responsibility to those people. As our Founder, Marie Hale, says, “If you’re going to show up for my dream, then I’m going to make sure you are taken care of in the best way possible.” 

(1)   Caldor Fire prompts states of emergency in Nevada and California, with more than 50,000 told to evacuate the Lake Tahoe region

(2) Triangle Shirtwaist Fire 

(3) Why has COVID-19 been especially harmful for working women?