The conversation: Why it's important to remember the Triangle fire
On the 100th anniversary of the Triangle fire that killed 146 garment workers -- mostly young Jewish and Italian women and girls -- laboring in sweatshop conditions, we are reminded why it's so important to pay tribute to their tragedy. Annoyed NYC taxi drivers: take note.
Remembering labor's martyred heroes
And yet the events of that day were a turning point for labor activism. The fire helped to fuel a new labor movement, and it energized the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, which demanded and got significant improvements in the way workers were treated and the conditions in which they worked.
I believe that how we remember and honor our lost heroes defines who we are as a nation. When we forget, we falter — and we often forget. We've forgotten much about our grandparents, immigrants from worlds so oppressive they were willing to work for low wages under wretched conditions, all for a chance at their own version of the American dream.
Remembering the Triangle fire
Given the enormous differences, politically, socially and culturally, between our time and the time of Triangle, it would be glib to draw specific lessons for today from the reformers who pulled some good from the ashes of the fire. But perhaps we can learn from their broad approach. The seemingly technical, incremental reforms that came in the aftermath of Triangle — requirements for sprinklers and fire drills and unlocked exit doors that open outward — were no more the result of modest thinking than the sweeping New Deal reforms like Social Security that came two decades later. Rather, they came out of a shared belief by socialists, unionists and even progressive presidents like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson that the society they lived in was fundamentally disordered, with institutions, rules and customs inappropriate for the needs of the people. The world needed reinventing. But if the spirit of revolution infused the air, so did the practical draw of social engineering and respect, grounded in daily experience, for the importance of even small changes in the conditions of work.
Today, the labor movement and progressives fight one dispiriting battle after another to defend wages, benefits, social programs and government protections from further dismemberment. Even the thrilling mobilization of labor and its allies in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana has remained, so far, defensive — necessary, but not enough even to win incremental advances. We live in a society that simply does not function for an ever-growing part of the population. It is too late to rally around restoring the status quo ante, an impossible and not particularly attractive ideal. Rather, like the social forces fused together by the flames at Triangle, we need to imagine a new way of being, a new set of customs and laws designed for our world of commoditization, financialization and globalization, which has brought so much wealth and so much misery — some new combination of regulation and self-organization. Only by recapturing the spirit of the reformers of a century ago, that the world belongs to us, to make right as we see fit, can we achieve even modest improvements in our daily reality.
The lessons of the Triangle fire may be lost 100 years later
Passing laws alone isn't enough to save lives.
On Sept. 3, 1991, 25 workers died from burns or suffocation and another 54 were injured when a 25-foot-long deep-fat fryer burst into flames at the Imperial Foods Products chicken-processing plant in Hamlet, N.C. As with the Triangle fire, the fire doors were locked to keep workers from stealing chickens. The plant had never been inspected -- not by OSHA or any other federal or state safety agency -- during its 11 years in operation, North Carolina accident investigators reported.
The deaths continue today. Just look at what happened during one month last year.
On April 2, an explosion at the Tesoro petroleum refinery in Anacortes, Wash., killed seven workers. Three days later, in West Virginia, 29 miners died when Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine exploded. Fifteen days later, on April 20, 40 miles off the Louisiana coast, the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling unit exploded and killed 11 workers and injured 16 others.
These multiple-fatality tragedies garner headlines and cause politicians in Congress to bang their fists on tables, demanding action," said O'Connor.
"Our country suffers from a silent epidemic of workplace deaths that elicit little or no outrage, he said, citing the construction worker with no harness who falls to his death from an unguarded roof. Or the sanitation worker with no protection or training who enters a confined space permeated with deadly chemical fumes. And the 18-year-old kid in his first week on the job who is buried alive in a collapsed trench.
--Alexandra Le Tellier
Photo: Firefighters worked to douse the flames at the Triangle Waist Co. in the Asch building at the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place on March 25, 1911, in New York City. Credit: Hulton Archive / Getty Images