If you were a teenage immigrant in New York in the early 1900s, you might have worked in a dress shop. And if you worked in a dress shop, you would have worked nine-hour days, probably crammed into some moldy basement with locked doors and a complete dickhead for a boss who was likely also a mobster. You would make about $3 a week—about $77 in today’s world—but you wouldn’t be able to keep it all. Some of it you’d have to give back to your dickhead boss (who sometimes beat you) to pay for the thread and electricity you used. And if you were a few minutes late to work because you had to go pick up some medicine for your sick mother, you might be docked hours of pay.
That’s a short sampling from the wryly excellent story by Cody Bay about the founding of the International Ladies Garment Union more than a century ago. We published it last summer, on the anniversary of the union’s founding. And today, on the 100-year-anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory—a tragedy that played a large role in the formation of unions and workers’ rights in the United States—we think it would be a good idea to revisit that story. It covers it all: sleazy bosses, plucky picketers, the Triangle Fire, the metaphorical phoenix that rose from its ashes as a Broadway musical (seriously. It was called “Pins and Needles”) and the full-circle scenario we are immersed in today, in which we’ve effortlessly transferred all of the appalling sweatshop issues the unions fought against to other countries. (Thanks, politicians!) In other words, this story is timely, informative, a hoot, and it’s a must read. So do yourself a favor and go here and read it!