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I am young (if we’re calling our 30’s “young” these days) and have only ever known working after labor legislation like the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act, Equal Opportunity Employment, etc.

In other words, I’ve only ever been a fairly privileged worker who’s enjoyed safe, sanitary, non-discriminatory working environments.  And Labor Day to me has always been about a day off of work where I could relax and get paid for it and backyard BBQ’s where I could enjoy the company of family and friends with a beer in my hand.  It wasn’t until recently, that I started thinking about the history of Labor Day, the history of labor in our country.

Its not a great history, often it’s downright horrendous – like the working environments of 100 years ago.  Working environments like the one at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory that in 1911 lead to one of our nation’s worst factory fires.

In a mere 20 minutes, 146 people were dead – mostly recent immigrant Jewish and Italian women.  15-year-old Ida Brodsky, a Russian Jew who came to the United States only nine months earlier. Jacob Klein, a 23-year-old Jewish man from Russia who had been here for five years. 43-year-old Provindenza Panno, a married Catholic woman from Italy. 15-year-old Bessie Viviano who came to the United States from Italy when she was a year old.

It took nearly 100 years for all of the victims of the fire to be positively identified, with the final six identifications completed just recently, according to the Department of Labor’s website.

A combination of overcrowding, unsafe working conditions with numerous fire hazards, and bad architecture…yes, bad architectural design… lead to the tragic fire.  A fire that would help fuel the growing labor movement’s aims to protect American workers.

These are the people Labor Day is truly meant to honor.  Not me, the worker who has never worked more than 50-60 hours a week (and then only voluntarily), who never worked in a building that didn’t have adequate sprinkler systems or means of egress in case of fire, who has never worked for a company that would literally lock me in so I couldn’t leave before my day was up, who has never worked with out regular breaks, has never worked without some kind of benefit package that would allow me to take vacation or sick days and offered health insurance, has never worked in unsanitary environments that were rife with infectious diseases.

Labor Day is no longer just about fun and games for me, it’s also now become a somber remembrance of the American workers who paved the way for me to enjoy the working environments I have been privileged with today.  Yes, Labor Day is still a day of celebrating America’s workforce, an important part of which are the workers who lost their lives before anyone really cared about that workforce.

 

Further Reading on the History of Labor Day and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire:

The DOL’s page on Labor Day 2012: http://www.dol.gov/laborday/

Wiki’s page on Labor Day: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labor_Day

The Department of Labor’s page on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: http://m.dol.gov/shirtwaist/

OSHA’s “Lessons from the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire”: http://www.osha.gov/oas/NYCOSH_Triangle_Jounal.pdf

A Register-Star article about the Triangle Fire with firsthand accounts: http://www.registerstar.com/articles/2011/03/25/news/doc4d8c106df0551777760688.txt

About Danielle Keperling

Danielle Groshong-Keperling has worked full-time in the restoration industry since 2001, but her education in the traditional trades, construction industry, and historical preservation was built from an early age through her Father's work in the traditional trades and her Mother's love of historic architecture. Now, with Jonathan (an artisan craftsman in his own right), her partner in business and life, they work together to help historic building owners restore and preserve their piece of our built history.