The 1911 Triangle Fire / PBS / American workers
Last evening, “The Triangle Fire” on PBS was an amazing documentary in the American Experience series—one of those which will no doubt perish if, as currently threatened, Congress defunds PBS.
You can still view “The Triangle Fire” at PBS or buy the DVD and watch with friends. There’s a lot to discuss!
The film begins with New York City’s tribute to the unidentified victims a few weeks after the disaster of March 25, 1911.
A hundred years later, the last six unidentified victims have just been identified; see more on them and their identification at the Cornell University site The Triangle Factory fire and in “100 Years Later, the Roll of the Dead in a Factory Fire Is Complete,” New York Times, 2/20/11.
As the Times puts it:
“…And so, for the first time, at the centennial commemoration of the fire on March 25 outside the building in Greenwich Village where the Triangle Waist Company occupied the eighth, ninth and 10th floors, the names of all 146 dead will finally be read….”
A shirtwaist, by the way, was basically a button-down blouse that was ready-to-wear, fashionable, and symbolic of the growing role of women outside the home, according to PBS.
(photo from the Kheel Center)
I first heard about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in the poem “Shirt” by former US poet laureate Robert Pinsky (text at poets.org; you can also listen to Pinsky reading the poem there):
…One hundred and forty-six died in the flames
On the ninth floor, no hydrants, no fire escapes—
The witness in a building across the street
Who watched how a young man helped a girl to step
Up to the windowsill, then held her out
Away from the masonry wall and let her drop.
And then another. As if he were helping them up
To enter a streetcar, and not eternity.
That’s the sad gist of the story. I’m going to summarize some themes from the documentary, from PBS’s overall write-up, from “Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire” in Wikipedia, and from other sources identified above and below.
The film emphasizes that 1909-11 was the period when intolerable working conditions stimulated the growth of the union movement in New York’s sweat shops. It says:
“Progressive reformers had been shining a light on the growing inequalities in America for twenty years… But their calls for government to rebalance the relationship between employers and their employees went largely unheeded.”
Does that sound familiar? And do our current downturn in regulation and decline of the union movement seem like an ironical commentary of the sacrifices and losses of life in 1911?
Ironically, the Triangle Factory workers themselves—who were at the forefront of the movement, courageously staying out on strike while they were brutalized by hired thugs and scorned by official New York, and their families went short of food—did not succeed in unionizing their own place of employment.
Ironically, the daughter of J. P. Morgan and other “society ladies” and woman suffragists publicly supported the strikers (up to a point) and enlisted socially prominent picketers.
Ironically, owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris had emigrated as young tailors from Europe to the US 20 years earlier; now, their policies caused the deaths of 146 mostly Italian and (like the owners) European Jewish immigrants or their children, almost all of them women, half of them teenagers (the youngest: 14). The owners were acquitted on manslaughter and actually received more in insurance than the cost of the physical damage to the facilities.
Ironically, the factory was in the Asch Building (it was not, however, reduced to ash and is now part of NYU).
The owners on the 10th floor, notified by telephone from the 8th floor where the fire started, escaped to the roof. But of the 240 workers on the 9th floor, more than half died. There was no fire alarm; one stairway was locked (the foreman escaped to the street with the key in his pocket); the external fire escape collapsed; the freight elevators began to melt and were weighed down by bodies falling down the shafts; fire ladders reached only the 6th floor.
Over 50 victims chose death by falling to the sidewalk rather than by being burned up.
As the New York Times says:
“…The fire was a wrenching event in New York’s history, one that had a profound influence on building codes, labor laws, politics and the beginning of the New Deal two decades later….”
Things can’t get worse than the Triangle fire, right? Actually, “Deadliest Workplace Accidents” at PBS catalogues 37 other industrial and manufacturing accidents of US facilities. Of those, eight have even higher death tolls, ranging up to 581 in 1947 .
Such things don’t happen any more, right? Unfortunately, they do: the PBS list ends with six 21st-century disasters: death in an oil refinery, a sugar refinery, a power plant, two mines, and of course an oil rig.
It takes a lot of guts to be an industrial worker in the US, doesn’t it?
At least we don’t have any more sweatshops, right?
Alas, from the Cornell site:
“Even today, sweatshops have not disappeared in the United States. They keep attracting workers in desperate need of employment and illegal immigrants, who may be anxious to avoid involvement with governmental agencies. Recent studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor found that 67% of Los Angeles garment factories and 63% of New York garment factories violate minimum wage and overtime laws. Ninety-eight percent of Los Angeles garment factories have workplace health and safety problems serious enough to lead to severe injuries or death.”
You can bet that more disasters for the all-time high list are in the making.
“Wrenching events,” in the Times’ expression, happen around us all the time today, in fires, shootings, car accidents, environmental disasters, wars, and the steady erosion of our social fabric. Will those too have “a profound influence”? Or is our society totally adjusted to them as a cost of doing business?