I know for a fact that the change we need in our country is possible — because America’s made big, structural change before.
I’d like to tell you a story of how it’s happened — a story I shared last night in New York City with people like you who are ready to dream big, fight hard, and win.
We were in Washington Square Park. Not because of the arch that was behind me, or the president the square is named for. We weren’t there because of famous arches or famous men. In fact, we weren’t there because of men at all.
We were there because of some hard-working women. Women who, more than a hundred years ago, worked long hours in a brown, ten-story building a block away. Women who worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.
That was the site of one of the worst industrial disasters in American history. 146 workers were killed — mostly women, mostly immigrants — because of dangerous conditions, and because of corruption. Because fat-cat factory owners greased the political system to prevent lifesaving regulations.
A woman named Frances Perkins ran into the street, watching the fire. That day changed her. It changed a lot of people. The next week, women’s trade unions organized a funeral march down Fifth Avenue, and half a million people showed up.
They organized and pushed for change from the outside, and Frances pushed from the inside. She went to Albany ready to fight. She worked to create a commission investigating factory conditions, and then she served as its lead investigator. They got fire safety measures passed. But they didn’t stop there: They rewrote New York’s labor laws from top to bottom to protect workers.
Frances went on to become the first woman in American history to serve in the Cabinet, as President Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor. And what did she push for when she got there? Big, structural change.
She used the same model she and her friends had used after the Triangle Fire: She worked the political system relentlessly from the inside, while a sustained movement applied pressure from the outside. As Frances Perkins put it, the Triangle Fire was “the day the New Deal was born.”
So, what did one woman — one very persistent woman — backed up by millions of people across this country get done? Social Security. Unemployment insurance. Abolition of child labor. Minimum wage. The right to join a union. Even the very existence of the weekend. Big, structural change. One woman, and millions of people to back her up.
The tragic story of the Triangle factory fire is a story about power. A story of what happens when the rich and the powerful take control of government and use it to increase their own profits while they stick it to working people.
But what happened in the aftermath of the fire is a different story about power: Our power. About what’s possible when we all fight together as one.