Did you miss it? I almost did, until a few news channels had some looking-back coverage of it – one of the worst and probably the most famous workplace tragedy in American history – the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. If you don’t know about it, you should. Every working man and woman should. In brief this is what happened. A fire broke out on the top floor of an ten story building in Manhatten. Working on that the top floors were over 100 women sewing ladies garments. The doors to the stairwell through which they could have escaped were chained by the owners to prevent thefts by the workers. One hundred and forty-six peoples died. Some were killed by the fire. Many others jumped to their deaths to escape the flames, while horrified bystanders on the sidewalks below looked on. Most were women, most of them were in their teens and 20’s. Here’s a link to the full story. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triangle_Shirtwaist_Factory_fire
It was a transformative event in America, leading quickly to the enactment of municipal ordinances to prevent such treatment of workers. The effects were long-lasting through the effect they had on one person – Frances Perkins.
The story of Francis Perkins is one that is prominent in my consciousness. She has been an heroic figure to me a long time. She was among the crowd of bystanders on the sidewalk watching in horror as scores of young women plunged to the sidewalk from the burning building. She was transformed by this experience into a lifelong fighter for legislation to protect workers. She worked in the administrations of Al Smith and Franklin Roosevelt when they were governors of New York, and is most remembered as FDR’s Secretary of Labor, the first woman appointed to a cabinet position. There she was the guiding hand and force behind the New Deal legislation relating to labor relations, such as the Fair Labor Standards Act, Occupational Health and Safety regulations, and child labor laws.
A devout Episcopalian, she took time each month to make a retreat at an Episcopal convent in Catonsville, Maryland, the All Saints Sisters of the Poor. May 13 is her feast day. She is celebrated in “Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints.” Born in 1880, she discovered the Episcopal Church as a young adult and was confirmed at the age of 25. She was 31 when she witnessed the Triangle fire. I’ve regarded that day as the day God called Francis Perkins to be the champion for workers that defined the rest of her life. There’s no better example of how to live one’s faith in the workplace. Her Collect in “Holy Women, Holy Men” says it all.
“Loving God, we bless your Name for Frances Perkins, who lived out her belief that the special vocation of the laity is to conduct the secular affairs of society that all may be maintained in health and decency. Help us, following her example, to contend tirelessly for justice and for the protection of all in need, that we may be faithful followers of Jesus Christ, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen”
Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church. Washington DC, 31-March-2015.