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’