The historic Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire prompted many safety standards and labor rights in place today, yet there’s little recognition for the 146 mostly immigrant women garment workers who died at the site in Lower Manhattan nearly 105 years ago.
Hofstra University associate professor of rhetoric Mary Anne Trasciatti is working to change that.
She is president of Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition, the nonprofit group trying to get a permanent memorial on the site. The victims’ names would be etched into steel panels installed on the landmarked building at 23-29 Washington Place in Greenwich Village, where the fire took place March 25, 1911.
“We want to inspire personal reflection but also activism,” said Trasciatti, 52, of Long Beach, who is the daughter of an Italian immigrant garment worker of a different era. “If history teaches us anything it is that workers rights and safety protections for all of us need to be constantly fought for. The struggle is never over.”
The coalition’s advocacy for a victims’ memorial recently gained momentum. In December, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced a $1.5 million grant to fund the memorial project. The coalition needs $2.4 million total and approvals from various city agencies. The coalition was formed in 2002.
New York University, which owns the building, supports the effort for a memorial there.
“There are 150 memorials in New York City and only five of them are dedicated to women,” Trasciatti said.
On Tuesday, Hofstra will host a public event about the fire at 11 a.m. in the Mack Student Center on its Hempstead campus in celebration of International Women’s Day. Trasciatti will be joined by a historian, an actor and a student in a panel discussion on the fire’s impact on society.
Considered one of the worst industrial tragedies in the nation at the time, the fire became a rallying cry for the international labor movement. It broke out on the eighth floor of the sweatshop one block east of Washington Square Park, where about 500 young and immigrant employees worked excessively long hours in unsanitary and dangerous conditions.
The owners had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits — a common practice at the time — to prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks. Many of the workers could not escape and jumped from the high windows.
Fire trucks that arrived had ladders that reached only to the sixth floor. The elevators ran as long as they could as workers pressed into the cars; some tumbled down the elevator shaft.
“We have our basic rights because these women died,” said Eileen Follano, 28, who is graduating from Hofstra in May with a bachelor’s degree in rhetoric.
Having taken Trasciatti’s class on Women and the Labor Movement and learning about the story of the fire, she decided she wanted to pursue a career in labor relations. She is the coalition’s social media intern.
Tuesday’s event at Hofstra is free, but registration is required. For more information, visit rememberthetrianglefire.org.