100 Years of Shame

This Monday, HBO is featuring a documentary in observance of the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. The first airing of the documentary is March 21, 9:00 PM ET/PT (other showtimes listed at close). You’d have to be living under a rock to not know of the tragedy. It was on March 25, 1911 that 123 Jewish and Italian immigrant women (half were teenagers) perished in the Asch building fire. The total death count was 146.

It’s a painful anniversary, one that by virtue of implication and inclusion, you’ll bear some responsibility of its legacy because communal consciousness designates a free-for-all bashing of the apparel industry. Reducing the fire to a simplistic conflict between workers and owners over wages, profit and safety is disingenuous because most workplaces of the day were just as dangerous if not worse (and most workers were just as poorly paid). Workplace safety wasn’t a priority; it took a tragedy to ensure it would become one. The fire was an accident waiting to happen and it could have been prevented if anyone had listened. Even after the tragedy, nearly all businesses protested government interference in their affairs. Regulatory oversight by government was not part of the consciousness of the era.

People forget that women had been beaten and thrown in jail for protesting their working conditions for two long years before the fire. In fact, many of the women who died in the Triangle fire had been beaten and arrested by New York City policeman just two months prior. The victims had tried to make their plight known but the citizenry wasn’t ready to listen until after the tragedy occurred. In those days, few citizens had the consciousness to advocate for safety, holding company owners accountable. Truthfully, too few cared; men held sway in public life and many aspired to become wealthy themselves. On the other hand, the mal-contents were immigrants -and swarthy ones at that- and they were female. Maybe it’s better to read The Fire Last Time from the New Republic. It’s a snapshot of social history few of us will ever know.

The prospect of another tragedy of this magnitude occurring within the US today is unlikely but only because of safety regulations that larger employers -by virtue of their size- are required to implement. And by virtue of your size, most of you escape regulatory oversight but that doesn’t mean that you’re off the hook just because you haven’t been cited. I’ve been in terrible DE shops, ergonomically unsound (come on, raise the tables already) poor lighting that gives people headaches with eye strain, poor ventilation around chemicals, insufficient safety gear (masks, gloves etc) and lastly, owners do not enforce dress codes. It is but an order of magnitude between the tragedy the fire represented versus those of you with small shops that are unsafe. You did know the fire was a consequence of failing to clean up the place? A three month accumulation of scraps ignited. You cannot allow workers to imperil themselves either. I won’t even let visitors come into my shop if they’re not wearing closed toed shoes. What I’m trying to say is that you should commemorate this anniversary by conducting a safety check of your workplace. Do your part to make your workplace a safer and happier place to work even if it is only you and your family members who are in it.

If you live in New York or will be traveling there, you might be interested in commemorative events taking place next week.

The HBO documentary show times are EST and PST
March 21, 9:00 PM
March 25 6:30 PM
March 27 1:00 PM
March 31 11:30 AM
April 2 3:45 PM
April 5 11:45 PM

Related stories and links:
Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition
Union That Grew in the Triangle Fire’s Ashes Is Now Nearly Gone
The Triangle Fire: Remembered A Century Later
Two Remembrances of One Deadly Day in 1911
The Fabric of Factory Life
PBS: ‘American Experience: The Triangle Fire’

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  1. This is a timely article for those of us living in Wisconsin. Many people I have spoken with are under the impression that we could never see these types of injustices again and that the unions have outlived their usefullness….I wonder.

  2. Reader says:

    Good post, Kathleen. Informative, respectful, but not overly sentimental or romanticizing.

    One of questions I’ve had about this terrible tragedy is why almost all the victims were immigrant white women. Were blacks excluded from the industry? I know they were barred from unions for many years.

  3. Reader says:

    Lynne Williams:

    When I saw a PBS documentary on this topic about a month ago, it was impossible not to think about Wisconsin. I hate reading about the trouble there in part because I have extremely dated, schoolgirl history book memories of Wisconsin being a progressive state.

    Thing have changed.

  4. Michael Deibert says:

    When I was at school, there was a play written about this incident. I was backstage during the show, but it used much primary source material and brought in personal lives of those who perished in the fire. Was a completely moving piece.

    It always seems unfortunate that, more often than not, change for the better is only provoked by a catastrophe.

  5. Marie-Christine says:

    Kathleen is unfortunately right, a tragedy on that scale is less likely to happen because small employers that don’t respect or enforce safety regulations are more likely to kill a dozen persons at a time :-(.
    I tried to write up some stuff about textile flammability a few years back http://www.fuzzygalore.biz/articles/flammability.shtml mostly stemming from my experiences with glass, torches, and clothing..

  6. Eric H says:

    I think I’ve gone on at length about the safety and cleanliness themes here in the past.

    Much safety follows from cleanliness. Get a copy of Hiroyuki Hirano’s 5 Pillars of the Visual Workplace book and implement the suggestions. It is a very practical manual filled with photos and great ideas, and shows how workplace organization based on Just in Time and ergonomics is simply better.

    What are your hazards? Fire, chemicals, machine-related injuries are probably the most relevant for this forum. Maybe electrical or fall-related (do you store stuff on high shelves?). An inspector will first notice your housekeeping. Then they will check whether you have sufficient numbers of the correct type of extinguisher (did you know there are different types for paper, liquid (oil, alcohol), and electrical fires?) placed in the correct locations with a recent inspection tag. Do you know how to inspect them? If you have chemicals (any, whether you think they’re safe or not), you have to have the MSDS. If you have employees, you have to have the MSDS forms stored in an employee right-to-know station.

    Clean up your electrical cords. You should be using extension cords for permanent installations. You shouldn’t be using fraying cords at all.

    If you store stuff up high, you should have proper ladders, not a bucket you turn upside down.

    The most controversial topic we could probably consider would be sewing machine guards. I don’t have any experience with them.

  7. Denise says:

    A documentary about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire was on American Experience 2 weeks ago or so (as another option–and as an earlier posted wrote). You can watch it here: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/triangle/player/

    A remarkably similar event occurred 20 years ago: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamlet_chicken_processing_plant_fire

    If I recall correctly, fear of employee theft and trying to control employees is why the fire doors were locked in both instances. Sadly, it’s tragedy like this that incites action.

  8. Jay Arbetman says:

    “Regulatory oversight by government was not part of the consciousness of the era.”

    And an awful lot of people want to get rid of it now. The problem is we listen to this tea bag/anti union/anti-tax/anti government junk think everyone is entitled to their opinion.

    Everyone IS entitled to there opinion, however they are not entitled to there own facts. Given the choice between safety and money, most corporations will take the dough. Those of us in the apparel trade know that it isn’t the unions or the government that drove the business overseas. It was the corporate tax code. It is simply more lucrative to leave a huge carbon footprint, pay workers a desparate wage and not have to even deal with American workers that want a decent wage and safe conditions. If a little child labor and/or slave labor ends up in your closet you can always claim ignorance.

    The fact is, the situation that brought about the Triangle tragedy has not changed other than this “accident waiting to happen” has moved to China, Pakastan etc.

    The amazing thing about all of this is that some of the people shouting the loudest in the anti-government, anti-tax, anti-regulation movment are the very people that will get hurt the worst if we end up in an economic and governmental free for all.

  9. Sabine says:

    Sewing machine guards: I had one and took it off,I cannot sew with it. Not safe.
    When we work for ourselves,I think in most cases we overlook a lot of safety rules that we would insist on, were we to work for a large company.
    Having grown up in a small company, I was raised to accept unsafe as normal. It was also the time back then (I was born in 76)
    Ladders? ya, with broken rungs, or buckets on chairs with wheels.
    Smoking on the gas station
    no child seats
    bringing total strangers in the middle of the night into your home to offer them a bed
    eye protection when welding….what is that? or safety goggles…they are for whimps.
    clogs instead of steel toed work boots for the workers…kids run through barefoot, cause who needs shoes, it’s summer!
    first beer at 10am at the latest
    riding your bike with a case of beer on the back at the age of 10
    Getting rides from people too drunk to walk
    doing bodywork on cars, sanding etc without masks
    No coveralls for the kids,some old clothes will do.
    if it’s dry…it won’t transfer dirt, and germs don’t exist anyways.
    having 3 cars run inside an enclosed space…don’t open the door, it’s cold!!

    But: it needed to be fairly clean, no tools on the floor allowed, unless it was my father, but he could always blame someone else ;)

    Kathleen, you are setting a very good example in how to keep a work place a safe place. It is something I do try to emulate.

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