Friday, June 3, 2011

Famous Speech Friday: Rose Schneiderman on the Triangle Factory Fire

Memorial speeches don't normally turn a harsh eye on the audience, but garment workers' union organizer Rose Schneiderman's speech "We Have Found You Wanting" did just that a century ago in the wake of New York City's Triangle Factory Fire. Delivered before an audience at the Metropolitan Opera House on April 2, 1911, the speech took place within a week of the fire at a meeting designed to focus on how to prevent such a tragedy in the future. Schneiderman, a former garment worker turned organizer for the International Ladies Garment Workers' Union and the Women's Trade Union League, wasted no time and gave no quarter. Here's how she started this six-paragraph speech:
I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting.
Making sure her audience was under no delusions, she explained briefly and clearly why the fire wasn't an unusual event:

This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city. Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap and poverty is so sacred. There are so many of us for one job it matters little if 146 of us are burned to death.
Frances Perkins, a witness to the fire who later served as Secretary of Labor for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, also heard Schneiderman's speech at the meeting. Recalling it many decades later, Perkins said:

I'll never forget this was the first time I ever had heard Rose Schneiderman speak....She was an unknown little girl, a little red headed girl; she couldn't have been, - well, she couldn't have come up to my shoulder. Very small type but with red hair, fiery red hair, and blazing eyes and pretty too...a voice that carried in the Metropolitan Opera House. Wonderful what a speech she made, and I remember how moved we all were by this girl who was a member of that union, you see, the Ladies' Dress and Waist Union. [The women factory workers in the audience] were all eligible for membership in her union, and she took them all in with the most beautiful speech....
Many would disagree that her speeches were beautiful--but they certainly made plain the plight of the garment workers. When a state legislator complained a year later about the indelicacy of women getting involved in politics, she replied, "We have women working in the foundries, stripped to the waist, if you please, because of the heat. Yet the Senator says nothing about these women losing their charm. They have got to retain their charm and delicacy and work in foundries. Of course, you know the reason they are employed in foundries is that they are cheaper and work longer hours than men. Women in the laundries, for instance, stand for 13 or 14 hours in the terrible steam and heat with their hands in hot starch. Surely these women won't lose any more of their beauty and charm by putting a ballot in a ballot box once a year than they are likely to lose standing in foundries or laundries all year round."

Here's what you can learn from this compelling speech:
  • Don't waste your moment: Schneiderman had a live audience wanting to do something to address the wrongs the fire represented, and a city united in its grief. She didn't fritter away that moment with platitudes.
  • Keep it simple to keep it powerful: This speech's six paragraphs are models of simple language and simple sentence structure. Adjectives and adverbs are at a minimum, and active verbs take precedence. That allowed her to make strong statements fast--and concisely.
  • Use your authority: Speaking as a former garment worker and daughter of a tailor, as well as someone who'd seen the inside of more factories than her audiences had, Schneiderman had the authority to speak on her subject firsthand. As a witness, she used declarative sentences to push forward what she'd seen and how it looked. With few who could counter her, the words became that much  more powerful.
  • Cut to the chase:  Schneiderman's opening line -- "I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship" -- announced at once her point of view and her focus. She let her listeners know right away they wouldn't be hearing a flowery mourner's speech, but a call to action.
  • Use the invisible visual:  The image of the burned bodies laid out on the sidewalks was still fresh in the audience's minds, and she took advantage of it, using it in her first sentence to focus the mind's eye of her listeners with the most dramatic image.
This year marks 100 years since the fire and this speech. Schneiderman's words were a game-changer, inspiring scores of actions, laws and other protections for workers, as well as inspiring future activists like Perkins. What do you think of this famous speech?

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