100 Years After the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

Triangle Chalk Project: Annually, volunteers chalk memorials to the women who died on the doorsteps in New York where they lived.

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City on March 25, 1911. One hundred and forty six people died, either from the fire or by jumping from the factory to their deaths trying to escape. Most were young women, almost entirely Jewish or Italian immigrants, many still in their teens, one just 14. It was from this incident that many of our contemporary worker safety laws originated.

Poet Chris Llewellyn’s collection Fragments From the Fire poignantly recalls the event:

‘I could see them falling,’
said Lena Goldman. ‘I was sweeping out
in front of my cafe. At first some thought
it was bolts of cloth – till they opened
with legs! I still see the day
it rained children’
(From the poem “March 25, 1911” by Chris Llewellyn)

The battles that arose in the wake of Triangle over worker safety, worker rights and whether government should regulate business are alive today. Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson admirably traces this important history in his column this week titled The mind-set that survived the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. He writes:

In Triangle’s wake … Al Smith and state Senate President Robert Wagner … aided by Frances Perkins, a young social worker who was in Washington Square looking on in horror as the seamstresses jumped to their deaths … authored and enacted legislation that required certain workplaces to have sprinklers, open doors, fireproof stairwells and functioning fire escapes; limited women’s workweeks to 54 hours and banned children under 18 from certain hazardous jobs. …

Businesses reacted as if the revolution had arrived. The changes to the fire code, said a spokesman for the Associated Industries of New York, would lead to “the wiping out of industry in this state.” The regulations, wrote George Olvany, special counsel to the Real Estate Board of New York City, would force expenditures on precautions that were “absolutely needless and useless.” “The best government is the least possible government,” said Laurence McGuire, president of the Real Estate Board. “To my mind, this [the post-Triangle regulations] is all wrong.”

Such complaints, of course, are with us still. We hear them from mine operators after fatal explosions, from bankers after they’ve crashed the economy, from energy moguls after their rig explodes or their plant starts leaking radiation. We hear them from politicians who take their money. We hear them from Republican members of Congress and from some Democrats, too. A century after Triangle, greed encased in libertarianism remains a fixture of — and danger to — American life.

Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Jewish Labor Committee and president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (UFCW) notes the biblical mandate to support workers safety and their rights to secure safe working conditions — and especially ties the Triangle fire to labor union uprisings in Wisconsin, Ohio, and other states.

“The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire that took place in New York City a century ago is now being memorialized in programs across the country. It took that fire on March 25, 1911, and the deaths of 146 innocent garment workers – mostly women, mostly Jewish, mostly immigrants – to bring about meaningful safety regulations, and to respect the call of workers struggling to secure the benefits of union membership. Many of our grandparents and great-grandparents played a critical role in building a strong and vibrant labor movement with the hope that it would endure and remain a permanent feature of American life. Through their actions and their struggle, our lives and the lives of most Americans were made better. Today, those hard-fought gains are under threat in communities across the United States.

What has emerged in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and across America is an attack against working men and women in both the public and private sector. The targets are the public employees now, but their intention is to come after all unionized workers. … Many Jewish texts, from the Torah through the Talmud, deal specifically with the treatment of workers. The Torah urges “justice, justice, shall you pursue.” There is, then, a deeply moral, historical and theological basis for our efforts to close the widening gap between the rich and poor, and to prevent growing economic instability that will be detrimental for all Americans. This demands that we strengthen, not weaken, private and public sector unions to ensure that current and aspiring middle class Americans attain a decent standard of living and greater economic security.”

Traditional Catholic teaching on the rights of workers is pretty straightforward. Workers have the right to form and belong to unions and other associations. They have the obligation to address difficult problems with respect for the rights and needs of all. As the archbishop of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, said recently, “hard times do not nullify the moral obligation each of us has to respect the legitimate rights of workers.”

To learn more about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, see PBS’ American Experience Fire in the Sky. Also read David Von Drehle’s Triangle: The Fire that Changed America

From The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Through Madison by Stuart Appelbaum

For more about Chris Llewellyn, read The Braided River of Language by Rose Marie Berger and read her collection of poems Fragments from the Fire

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