Another Labor Day

August 29 2023
20,000 workers – a quarter of them women – march down Fifth Avenue and through the Arch to rally in the Park for improved working conditions in 1912.

Imagine being in Washington Square Park on Labor Day over a century ago. 2 Fifth Avenue hasn’t been built yet. The pedestals of the Arch are empty, still a few years away from gaining their statues of Washington. The Fountain doesn’t yet have the iconic steps that turned it into a wading pool. And thousands of people are gathered together for a very different kind of Labor Day than the BBQ and beach-filled weekends that most of us are familiar with today.

The 1912 Labor Day parade was not a joyous event. Thousands of people, a large number of them women, joined together to march down Fifth Avenue and through the Arch. They marched with a purpose; to rally in support of better working conditions. And they had good cause. Just over a year before a disastrous fire claimed dozens of workers lives just a block away from Washington Square Park.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, on March 25, 1911 claimed 146 lives just off the Square. It was the worst industrial disaster in the city’s history, and many of the victims were young immigrant women, working hard to gain a better life. The victims’ official causes of death were fire, smoke inhalation, and injuries from falling or jumping to escape the flames. But the real cause were the inhumane conditions in which they were forced to work. Instead of providing egress, the doors to the stairwells and exits were locked (a common practice at the time to prevent theft or workers taking unauthorized breaks). What was intended to thwart a “lazy” worker instead prevented escape from the flames as workers found themselves trapped inside. 

So it is no wonder that men and women turned out in droves. They were anguished, afraid, and determined to improve conditions for themselves and their fellow workers. The demands of the Labor Day protesters, and the persistence of those fighting for workers rights were eventually met.  Legislation was passed requiring improved factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), which fought for better working conditions for sweatshop workers.

So on this Labor Day, 111 years later, maybe take a minute as you stroll through the Park to pause and remember the feet that walked here, and the sacrifices they made so workers today could have a better life.