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Triangle Fire Anniversary Today

March 25, 2011

LAS VEGAS - A tragedy 100 years ago today led to reforms in workplace safety and workers' rights - but labor leaders say there are still lessons to be learned - and taught - for Nevadans.

On March 25, 1911, fire raced through three floors of a New York City sweatshop, the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. The blaze claimed 146 victims - most of them young immigrant women - who were trapped by a locked door. Many were forced to jump to their deaths.

The fire gave rise to a host of government-enforced workplace protections, but Danny Thompson, executive secretary-treasurer of the Nevada State AFL-CIO, says it is sad to see many of those same protections under attack by lawmakers in Carson City.

"There's a Bill to do away with minimum wage, do away with collective bargaining. There's a Bill to do away with the eight-hour day. All of those things would take us back to the days that they were able to lock the fire exits and leave people in a sweatshop."

Some Nevada lawmakers say unions need to give back some rights to help the state balance its budget. Thompson says te givebacks they want don't come close to dealing with the deficit. He says those lawmakers are bowing to corporate interests and failing in their duty to protect the middle class.

Joel Sosinsky, co-author of a new book about the historic factory fire, says lessons were learned from the tragedy - but perhaps not enough of them are being taught to today's students in Nevada or the nation.

"You'd be surprised how few children today actually know anything about labor history in general and the Triangle fire in particular."

Sosinsky says the labor movement that was bolstered in the wake of the Triangle tragedy faces new challenges today.

"It's 100 years later and, in some respects, nothing has changed. And when you see what's going on in Wisconsin and other states that have similar initiatives to take away collective-bargaining rights, it just breaks your heart."

Sosinsky's book, from Arcadia Publishing, is tied into a documentary called "Triangle: Remembering the Fire," airing this month on HBO. More information is online at Rememberthetrianglefire.org.

Mike Clifford, Public News Service - NV