May marked Labor History Month, and I participated in two events recently that reminded me of the long history of labor struggle in this country and how NYSNA nurses are continuing in that tradition of struggle — and making history in the process.
Remember the Triangle Fire
I spoke at an event to commemorate the anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and to memorialize the 146 workers — mostly immigrant women and girls — who perished on March 25, 1911. When a fire broke out on the top factory floors, the garment workers could not escape. The exits were locked, which was common in sweatshops at that time, and the firefighters’ ladders and water from the hoses could not reach the building’s ninth floor. Dozens of women and girls jumped to their deaths from the windows to escape the fire, as horrified witnesses looked on.
This tragedy was one of the worst disasters since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and became a clarion call to improve working conditions in New York and throughout the country. In the fire’s aftermath, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and other unions and advocates mobilized to support the survivors and victims’ families and to advocate for safer conditions as well as shorter working hours, limits on child labor and minimum wages. The New York Legislature established a commission to investigate and report on working conditions and soon enacted laws that protect workers today.
New York and Francis Perkins Led the Way
Significantly, one of the witnesses to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire that day was Frances Perkins, the future U.S. labor secretary under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Perkins and Roosevelt both began their political careers in New York and were instrumental in passing state legislation on workers’ rights following the Triangle Fire. When Roosevelt was elected president and appointed Perkins as labor secretary, she became the first woman to hold a federal cabinet-level position.
As labor secretary, Perkins built on the accomplishments for workers’ rights in New York state and became a chief architect of the New Deal, creating the social safety net as we know it. Her deep belief in workers’ dignity and the importance of unions fueled her work. Her advocacy within government created social security, unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, the federal minimum wage and federal child labor laws.
Nurses Walk in Those Footsteps Today
I was recently honored with the Francis Perkins Award for Excellence in Labor Organizing by Eleanor’s Legacy. I was so proud and humbled that NYSNA nurses were recognized for walking in the footsteps of such a trailblazing labor activist. I thought about how our members were doing what Perkins and other workers’ rights advocates had done before us almost 100 years ago — turning tragedy into action.
Labor history teaches us that they took the tragic Triangle Fire, and they strengthened unions and created new laws to protect workers. They took the Great Depression and the death and destruction of World War II, and they expanded workers’ rights and the social safety net, which built the middle class.
Over the last three years during the COVID-19 pandemic, NYSNA members have experienced death and trauma unlike anything we had experienced before. We took the terrible odds during the worst of the pandemic, and we raised the alarm about the conditions that nurses, healthcare workers and our patients faced. Through fearlessly organizing and demanding better conditions, NYSNA members won groundbreaking agreements to improve conditions in our healthcare facilities, raise wages, and give frontline workers a stronger voice in staffing and health and safety.
We had the courage to fight for a better world for ourselves and for those who will one day walk in our shoes. Our impact went beyond our members to other workers, our patients and our communities, who all benefit from our advocacy. We have already seen other workers in New York take inspiration from the New York City nurses strike to demand more at the bargaining table — and win.
Let’s Continue Making History Together
We know the struggle for workers’ rights is far from over. We must continue to win justice for nurses, patients, our communities and all workers. We must continue using our voice to transform our healthcare system so that it puts patients over profits.
I can’t think of a better way to honor the legacy of Francis Perkins and other trailblazers of labor history than to continue fighting for what is right and making history.