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Remember The Triangle Fire
March 9, 2011 1:53 PM   Subscribe

March 25, 2011 will mark the 100 year anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. American Experience has marked the anniversary. HBO will also mark the anniversary. In fact, many groups all across the country will mark the anniversary.

Previously.
posted by hippybear (35 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
Somewhere, a Koch brother is looking at this and thinking, "Man, those were the good old days."
posted by Joey Michaels at 2:03 PM on March 9, 2011 [12 favorites]


St. John's University is holding a series of lectures and exhibitions too.
posted by Jagz-Mario at 2:10 PM on March 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


In a year which has made unions suddenly important to us again, this is a story that needs more coverage.

I once wrote some middle-school materials on this disaster; the Koch-like perpetrators never really got anything approaching punishment, but many new laws regarding fire safety did get passed, requiring working fire escapes and exits. Laws that factory owners fought every step of the way.

The kinds of laws teabaggers hate, and want to get rid of, even though they've saved countless lives ever since.

I don't understand what it is about wealth and power that makes people spend endless time and energy defending their ability to grind poorer people into the dust for a few more bucks, but I wish we could find the cure for it and stop having to fight for the most basic of kind of justice.
posted by emjaybee at 2:12 PM on March 9, 2011 [9 favorites]


See how glorious it was to be a worker before unions and government regulation?!
posted by entropicamericana at 2:13 PM on March 9, 2011 [7 favorites]


The American Experience episode about this is great. The fact that they didn't identify some of the bodies until this year is just so haunting.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 2:13 PM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have come to believe that we should trust the invisible hand of the market. It can always be counted to shove teenage girls out of factory fires so they can plummet to the deaths ten floors below.
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:15 PM on March 9, 2011 [4 favorites]


@mjb: Hear!!! Hear!!! @ hb: thanks!
My own family were union people. I think that a lot of weathy people wish for a return of the Robber Baron Era. I sure don't. Well maybe if I could run a truely efficient affiliate of the Molly McGuires, you know, with firepower and stuff.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 2:17 PM on March 9, 2011


In the USA people have the freedom to not work for unsafe factories and to starve in the streets instead. What a great country.
posted by GuyZero at 2:22 PM on March 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


St. John's University is holding a series of lectures and exhibitions too.

Thanks for pointing this out. The STJ Law event on The Theology of Work and the Dignity of Workers is going to be especially interesting.

It's also interesting that NYU Law's Center for Labor and Employment Law is co-sponsoring this event, considering that NYU's Brown Building was the site of the atrocity. I've seen candlelight vigils on the anniversary, but what else does NYU itself have in store to commemorate the event?
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:29 PM on March 9, 2011


Stitcherbeast: if you peruse the last link in the FPP, you may find other NYU events listed there.
posted by hippybear at 2:33 PM on March 9, 2011


Gaaa. Sticherbeast. My apologies for the misspelling.
posted by hippybear at 2:35 PM on March 9, 2011


Once it started, the frail and fainthearted just withered to the floor.
Oh, so sadly, we examined hands burned badly by that which no man fears more.
The terrible flames are all that remain of My Little Shirtwaist Fire.

My best friend was alone in the alcove, has anyone seen her there?
Such a sweet face, trapped in a staircase by the smell of her own burning hair
And the terrible flames are all that remain of My Little Shirtwaist Fire.

GlowBabyGlowAsTheEmbersTheyDiedThere, NobodyKnowsWhatWeSawInsideThere
TwistingAndBurningTheGirls'FineYoungBodies
YesWe'reBurningCanYouHelpUsPlease? YesWe'reBeggingWe'reOnBendedKnees
Oh, My Little Shirtwaist Fire.


— Rasptuina
posted by adipocere at 2:37 PM on March 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


Gah, cannot spell Rasputina!
posted by adipocere at 2:37 PM on March 9, 2011


NYU has a gallery exhibit on the tragedy.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:39 PM on March 9, 2011


I await the House bill repealing whatever commonsense regulation that's prevented this from happening the last hundred years.
posted by Rhaomi at 3:10 PM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


The victims finally all been identified, as of last month.
posted by arveale at 3:24 PM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


Laws that factory owners fought every step of the way... I don't understand what it is about wealth and power that makes people spend endless time and energy defending their ability to grind poorer people into the dust for a few more bucks

Seriously. We're a century removed from the fire, and while things have gotten unquestionably better nearly all around, the core owner mentality, that desire to squeeze every last bit of money out of the workers or environment, has never really gone away in a lot of places.

It's like a sickness.
posted by quin at 3:36 PM on March 9, 2011


As long as we're remembering, remember also the 1991 Imperial Foods Hamlet Chicken Processing Plant fire which devastated a small town and brought to light the modern day lax enforcement of the laws passed as a result of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. The factory had been in operation for 11 years and had never had a safety inspection. The fire doors were kept locked to keep the employees from stealing chicken.
posted by hydropsyche at 3:40 PM on March 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


NYU has a gallery exhibit on the tragedy.

I think it's embarrassing that so far NYU has not allowed any sort of permanent memorial.
posted by hermitosis at 3:57 PM on March 9, 2011


Pinsky's poem about that incident is a wonderful work of art.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 4:02 PM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


According to a cousin of mine, my great-grandmother Ethel worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory at one point, although obviously (and thankfully!) she was not there on the day of the fire. On her marriage license affadavit/application a few years later in 1916, she is listed as working for Diamond Shirtwaist Company, which was a sub-contractor of Triangle. She and my great-grandfather Hyman, a teenage runaway from Ukraine who had also started out working in the NYC garment district sweatshops, married and eventually founded their own clothing company on 35th Street, which manufactured women's sportswear. Probably as a result of the world they had seen in their younger days, they made sure that it was a union shop. Their company prospered and they even eventually headed up an organization that brought together unionized garment workers and management -- the New York Skirt and Sportswear Association -- which I believe is still around today. Was there a direct line draw from the Triangle factory to the association's founding? No, probably not. But I can't talk to my late great-grandparents about their experiences and their motivations, so I can only do some detective work and make guesses.

But we do know there was at least one notable woman whose labor activism directly grew out of the fire's horrors. The workers dropping from the Asch building -- choosing to jump rather than to burn, as many fellow downtown workers would do 90 years later on 9/11 -- were witnessed by many horrified onlookers that day, including one young woman named Frances who was passing by and who attended the community meetings that followed. She was not a garment worker herself, but their plight stuck with her when she eventually took a new job at the White House...

(This short blog post from Frances' grandchild about the effect the fire had on her is also noteworthy.)
posted by Asparagirl at 4:05 PM on March 9, 2011 [9 favorites]


I should say the poem mentions the Triangle fire. It is not strictly about it.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 4:05 PM on March 9, 2011


Quin, I don't agree that the fire happened because the owners had "that desire to squeeze every last bit of money out of the workers". It happened because neither they nor their employees had really thought about safety and what would happen in the event of a fire. This is why workplace legislation is so important - it represents the condensed lessons learned from thousands upon thousands of workplace accidents.

True story: my father's workplace was once fined because an employee bypassed a safety switch, got down on the floor, twisted her body and reached her arm up and around a corner inside a cutting machine chute to remove a jam. The cutter activated and did what cutters do. I don't think she was badly hurt, but it required a trip to the emergency room.

Now, this was obviously a very stupid thing for her to have done, but the fine was absolutely justified. Firstly, the safety devices were obviously inadequate - because they didn't work! Secondly, she apparently thought that bypassing safety devices was a good thing because it would Get the Job Done. That's a staff education problem. Finally, lots of people saw her doing this - they should have stopped her. Once again, a staff education problem. None of these problems had anything to do with trying to grind people into the dust - it was a lack of imagination combined with a natural reluctance to lecture people.

If you think of industrial accidents as "robber barons exploiting people" you're setting yourself up for more accidents like this. Most accidents happen in small workplaces where the employees just want to be helpful and don't think anyone will mind if they bend the rules. Telling people that accidents happen because of wicked employers is exactly the wrong lesson - they need to know that accidents happen because industrial processes are inherently dangerous and that safe practices are based on experience, and that their employers want them to follow the rules. Of course, it's even better if the last bit is true ....
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:04 PM on March 9, 2011 [3 favorites]


Joe in Australia: Watch that American Experience episode if it's available where you live. I think you'll probably change your mind about whether the employers were trying to squeeze the workers.
posted by hippybear at 6:00 PM on March 9, 2011


Joe in Australia is writing reality, here.

In the mid-1970s and early 1980s, I worked for and owned companies that made machinery for the apparel and footwear industries, and I had thousands of hours of contact with ILGW workers, shoe company employees, and middle and upper management of hundreds of union and non-union apparel and shoe shops. I also, in that time period, worked for a major American footwear manufacturer, with a significant anti-union owner bias, to the point that the owner and majority shareholder of the company visited factories where I worked, and told employees that if they unionized with the International Rubber Workers, he'd turn their new Distribution Center into a bowling alley; 30 minutes later, that same man had every supervisor and manager from the factory in the cafeteria, and was reading them his findings of every single machine guard, safety switch, procedure, and chemical he'd found personal objections to, in his tour of the factory in which we all labored. His words from that day still resonate with me: "I'll stand to the judgement of people that work for me as to my morals in providing their jobs and the conditions of their work. But I won't stand, one more minute, for failures in our cumulative efforts in seeing to the welfare and safety of people that make our products." His list had 37 items, in a factory with more than 1300 workers, and 2,000 machines, all 37 of which had been previously passed, ignored, or not found, by OSHA inspectors, 16 days before. By the end of that first shift working day, all conditions on his list had been remedied to his satisfaction, and to that of the workers involved, or the machines/processes had been removed/changed to eliminate the found hazard. And that man remained the most militantly anti-unionist individual I have ever met, and some of his workers, the most intense union organizers I have ever known. And they shook hands, and understood each was serious, to the end, about his/her position.

4 months later, in a supervised election, the enterprise did not unionize.

The ignorance of some in this thread about working conditions in U.S. garment and shoe factories of the last half of the 20th century is appalling, and in some cases, clearly representative of bullshit personal agendas, having nothing to do with any knowledge of such places of manufacture and employment. A lot was learned, by all parties concerned, because of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, and to suggest that business owners were callous enough to ignore such heart rending situations as operational lessons, is simply to adopt a political stance, in many ways ignorant of the facts and persons involved.

Management attitudes and practices in American factories did change, broadly, as a result of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire tragedy, and to suggest otherwise is simply to ignore the history of American manufacture after that terrrible date.
posted by paulsc at 6:36 PM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


I used to think a lot about the Triangle Fire, when I lived in downtown LA. I lived in the Loft District, which was right next to the Garment District. I could look out my loft window, or from the windows of my friends in the area, and see into little sweatshops. I always thought of them as miniature Triangle Fires waiting to happen.
posted by charlie don't surf at 6:39 PM on March 9, 2011


Wait what?

You're talking about conditions in the garment industry in the latter half of the 20th century, when I don't see anyone else mentioning that at ALL until you brought it up.

Where has anyone expressed ignorance of the things you accuse them of?

I'm really not trying to steer this thread, but I don't see anyone making the statements you're suggesting are in this thread.

The facts are, the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist company WERE callous, and had gone to great lengths to make sure the women working for them had limited exits from the building because they were convince they were victims of worker theft with no evidence to support that.

I don't see anyone having suggested that the tragedy of the fire didn't change things dramatically for the better.

Are we even reading the same comment thread?
posted by hippybear at 6:59 PM on March 9, 2011


Hippybear: Thanks for the post - which is a great one - and suggesting that I watch the broadcast. A lot of the videos linked here can't be watched in Australia, so kudos to PBS for not being stupid. You can read or download the transcript of the video here, by the way.

Anyway, I agree that Blanck and Harris were squeezing ("sweating" is the word that would probably have been used) their workers. None the less, I don't believe they wished to have so many people lose their lives or that they were even reckless about the possibility. They simply didn't imagine the consequences of a single flame in a crowded, greasy, material-filled workshop - and nor did their employees, one of whom may have started the fire by discarding a lit cigarette butt within a material bin.

The reason we need industrial safety laws isn't because of evil employers; it's because even good, kind, considerate employers have difficulty imagining the myriad ways that people can be killed or injured in a factory; and because workers' adherence to safety standards needs reinforcement. If you blame the Triangle Shirtwaist fire on caricatures like Max Blanck (PBS alleges that he was "kept awake nights calculating the dollars he might lose if workers walked out with shirtwaists tucked in their bags, or fabric, or thread", but I don't know how they might know this) then you are treating safe practices as a punishment for bad people. As I said before, this is a really bad idea. Good people need safe workplaces too.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:14 PM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


In his presentation "the 10 commandments of cross examination" Irving Younger uses the triangle shirt waist factory fire case as an example of one of the commandments ... the defence attorney demolished the prosecution for coaching their witnesses, and this significantly contributed to a not-guilty verdict.

His description of the case (and the whole video of the presentation) was a high point of law school for me. Interestingly it seems to be the only video in the world not already on youtube!
posted by jannw at 12:45 AM on March 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


Anyway, I agree that Blanck and Harris were squeezing ("sweating" is the word that would probably have been used) their workers. None the less, I don't believe they wished to have so many people lose their lives or that they were even reckless about the possibility. They simply didn't imagine the consequences of a single flame in a crowded, greasy, material-filled workshop - and nor did their employees, one of whom may have started the fire by discarding a lit cigarette butt within a material bin.


"In 1913, Blanck was once again arrested for locking the door in his factory during working hours. He was fined $20."

Yeah nobody could have anticipated.
posted by one_bean at 1:25 AM on March 10, 2011


The reason we have laws against murder is to remind good people how not to murder.
posted by one_bean at 1:34 AM on March 10, 2011


If you blame the Triangle Shirtwaist fire on caricatures like Max Blanck (PBS alleges that he was "kept awake nights calculating the dollars he might lose if workers walked out with shirtwaists tucked in their bags, or fabric, or thread", but I don't know how they might know this) then you are treating safe practices as a punishment for bad people. As I said before, this is a really bad idea. Good people need safe workplaces too.

Well, I agree that it's a bad idea to see worker safety laws as punishment for bad people. They aren't. They are there to protect the worker, period. And in this instance, laws were made as a result of this tragedy which greatly changed the way manufacturing was done in NYC. It's a shame that 146 women were trapped in a burning building and lost their lives before it was realized that locking the exits might be a bad idea.
posted by hippybear at 8:28 AM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


They simply didn't imagine the consequences of a single flame in a crowded, greasy, material-filled workshop - and nor did their employees,

Or their employees did, and knew if they did anything or said anything they'd be fired on the spot, employees desperate enough that they had to take work in a sweatshop, so probably didn't have a fancy new job lined up should they be fired on the spot for complaining. Yeah, those workers were the problem.
posted by dirigibleman at 9:00 AM on March 10, 2011


Hippybear wrote: It's a shame that 146 women were trapped in a burning building and lost their lives before it was realized that locking the exits might be a bad idea.

Disasters often have a whole lot of antecedents. Cornell University has an amazing website on the fire, including a 3d-ish plan marked with the primary contributors to the disaster: Yes, the door shouldn't have been locked - but that would only have reduced the fatalities. There were so many causes! I've been reading through the primary sources on the Cornell website and there's so much that astounded me. People knew that something like this was likely to happen, but there was no momentum for change until after the tragedy.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:54 PM on March 10, 2011


I think it's embarrassing that so far NYU has not allowed any sort of permanent memorial.

There is a plaque (self-link). Have there been efforts to make other memorials on the site that NYU has impeded?
posted by Rarebit Fiend at 12:14 PM on March 12, 2011


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