Friday, March 27, 2009

The Triangle fire

Just a few steps away from my office, at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street off Washington Square, sits what NYU now calls the Brown Building. On March 25, 1911, it was the site of one of the worst crimes against the working class in U.S. history: the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, which ended with 146 dead. Almost all of them were women, some as young as their teens, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants who worked for outrageously low piecework rates in this sweatshop whose doors the owners kept locked so that no one could slip out even a moment before the official end of the work day. The Triangle's owners were already notorious for the terrible excesses of their greed, and the horrible working conditions to which they subjected their workers, and had been the targets of a strike not long before. They had also had other fires in their shops before. This day was the worst. The fire, which was directly caused by the bosses' flouting of any and all attention to safety, spread quickly. Those who didn't die inside from the smoke or flames found no way out except to jump from the ninth floor windows, and died on impact with the sidewalk.

The Triangle fire drew mass outrage. A funeral march of hundreds of thousands turned into a mass labor demonstration, which in turn led to great swift growth in the garment workers' union.

Today at the Triangle site (and I don't know why it wasn't two days ago on the actual anniversary) an annual memorial ceremony will take place. This is a frustrating event for labor activists. It is jointly organized by UNITE-HERE, the union that has its roots in both the International Ladies Garment Workers and the Amalgated locals, and the NY Fire Department. Its focus invariably is on fire regulations, not on worker rights. Not on struggle. It's a bloodless commemoration of a bloody day, a sort of ivory-tower history lesson that's divorced from all the current struggles facing the working class, even including today's immigrant workers and the attacks on them. Ah well. The U.S. labor movement is now at perhaps its lowest ebb ever. This can only mean one thing: that a return to struggle will come soon, because the only possible direction is up.

In the last few years two books related to the Triangle fire came out, both of which I read. One was a novel, Triangle, by Katherine Weber. I regret to say that it was in my opinion mediocre, and that's being kind. The other book, however, I highly recommend. It is Triangle: The Fire that Changed America by David von Drehle. Von Drehle's is a terrifically readable, highly informative, historically accurate and generally class-conscious look at that day, its context, its aftermath, and, most of all, its victims. At the end is a list of the names of and some factual data about every one of the 146 victims. I sat and read it and wept and wept. And dried my tears and turned back toward tomorrow's sturggles.