Factory Disasters in the United States

Two women in early 20th century clothing wear sashes that read, "Picket Ladies Tailer Strikers," while standing on a sidewalk in front of a building. A number of men stand on the sidewalk around them, some looking at the strikers, some facing away.

United States government officials and labor unions worked together to make changes to improve working conditions after one hundred factory workers died during a fire.

The second decade of the 1900s is one of the most progressive decades in the United States history. During the decade labor unions continued to grow, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire brought the issue of unsafe working conditions to heightened recognition. One hundred and forty-five female workers died in the fire. Children continued to be hired to work in factories, mills, and mines for long hours in unsafe and unhealthy conditions.

By the middle of the decade, states passed laws requiring children to be a specific age in order to work. The American Federation of Labor barred skilled African Americans. The women’s suffrage movement also made great strides. In 1919, nine years after the first women’s suffrage parade in New York City, women ’s right to vote was ratified with the 19th Amendment. The immigrant population also grew to record heights during the 1910s.

As the United States grew with the many incoming immigrants so did the labor unions. By the late nineteenth century, American industries were growing, which enhanced the opportunity for jobs. The owners of mines, mills, and factories expected the workers to work long hours in unhealthy and dangerous working conditions for very little pay. Labor unions were established in the early nineteenth century and increased their membership as industries grew.

The International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union organized workers in the women’s clothing trade. Many of the garment workers before 1911 were unorganized, partly because they were young immigrant women intimidated by alien surroundings. However, others were more daring and took a stand against the poor working conditions.

In the fall of 1909, a meeting took place for all the people who worked in the garment factories in New York City. Clara Lemlich, not yet in her teens, spoke to the many employees who worked in the factories. She said, “I offer a resolution that a general strike be declared now!” In the cold November air thousands of workers left the factories and walked to Times Square. With winter approaching and no fur coats to wear, the spirit of their determination kept them warm until they reached the meeting hall where they would rally and join the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union. The union leaders hoped to have at least three thousand workers participate in the strike. Surprisingly, twenty thousand workers walked to join the strike. Although more than three hundred factory owners heeded the demands of the strikers, still working conditions did not change.