Mourning and Organizing

The story has been told, and told, and told again.  A century ago this week, on March 25th, 2011, more than 500 sewing machine operators, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants, were working on the 9th floor of the Asch building in New York City, near Washington Square Park.. A fire started on the eighth floor.  By the time the fire reached the 9th floor some workers were able to make it out using the building’s one elevator, while others escaped via one of the building’s stairwells before it collapsed under the weight of hundreds of panicked workers.  But the 9th floor workers who were left behind discovered that the door leading to the Washington Square stairway was locked—a common practice, designed to keep the young seamstresses from stealing factory goods or taking unauthorized breaks.  Trapped in the fire, many workers died in the flames; still others jumped from the 9th floor and died from their injuries.

146 workers died, most of them Jewish and Italian women in their teens and twenties. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, 400,000 New Yorkers, 10% of the city’s residents, assembled to watch the workers’ funeral procession, which took place in a pelting rainstorm.  Moreover, after the fire, city and state representatives went on to pass more than 30 pieces of labor and safety legislation—legislation that could have prevented the Triangle Factory Fire if it had been in place and enforced that day.

As we approach the centennial of the Triangle fire this Friday, the work of hundreds of artists, filmmakers, activists, and historians of the last few years is culminating in a flurry of cultural documents and events.  PBS produced a stunning documentary about the fire that can be seen on their website, and HBO’s documentary, which is also very good, airs on the cable channel this week (beginning March 21).  An entire organization has been created to commemorate the day, the Coalition to Remember the Triangle Fire, which is sponsored by City Lore, a New York City organization that helps to preserve New York’s “living cultural heritage.”

The story of the Triangle Factory Fire itself is so grisly that it is easy to get drawn into the pathos of the story—to be swept away by grief and even a sense of helplessness.  The girls were so young, so vulnerable;  their bosses were so cruel, so profit driven.  And American society, before the accident, was so unfeeling, so ignorant, and so unwilling to regulate the garment industry until it was too late—at least for those 146 workers.

But there are three concrete lessons to take away from this week’s many commemorations—lessons that acknowledge the tragedy of the Triangle Factory Fire, but that give us something to think about, and, perhaps, more importantly, something to do.

The first lesson is a familiar one;  don’t mourn, organize.  If that sounds a little cold, let me explain.  The PBS documentary, Triangle Fire, shows that the fire followed on the heels of two years of concerted union organizing in sweatshops across the city.  The owners of the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory were particularly stubborn in their refusal to negotiate with the nascent garment workers union, even though some of the most militant union members were drawn from the Triangle Factory workforce.  The PBS film draws heavily on the work of David Von Drehle, now a Time magazine editor, who wrote Triangle Fire:  the Fire that Changed America in 2003.  In a recent interview he argued that we should not see the post-fire reforms as merely the emotional response of a city to the tragedy of the dead girls:

The reason reform happened was because those workers and their colleagues in the New York factories had begun organizing and had begun voting. They had organized an enormous strike in 1909-1910 and were forming coalitions with wealthy progressive leaders…The way change happens is not by having the best idea or by making the most emotional appeal. The way lasting change happens is by winning the attention of the vote-counting politicians, working the system.  Or as Mother Jones said, organize organize, organize.

The second lesson is related to the first: organize the mourning.  While Drehle is correct that the reforms were won as much by the 1909 picket lines as they were by the fire, the labor movement has kept the memory of the fire alive these last 100 years in order that US labor law not be dragged back to those darker times.  The International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) especially, founded in 1900, has masterfully retold many elements of its dramatic history, including the Triangle fire, in stories, songs, films, art exhibits, photographs, printed material, and now in digital forms at the Kheel Center, where the bulk of the unions’ archives are housed.

In 1950 the ILGWU produced With These Hands, a feature film telling the story of the union’s first 50 years.  The film included the narrative of the great 1909 uprising, as well as the Triangle fire.  While some see the film as marred by its amateur production values and its Cold War rebuke of Communism, the film is still a remarkable effort, one of the only successful films of its kind made in the immediate postwar era.  It debuted to great fanfare (though admittedly lukewarm reviews) in 1950 but was then copied and used by ILGWU locals around the country.  After its production, the ILGWU stepped up its use of 16mm film as an organizing and recruiting tool.

Throughout the 1950s the ILGWU continued to produce union culture that was written by and for union members.  The Northeast division wrote a musical history of the union, My Name is Mary Brown, which was also turned into a booklet and a short film.  The ILGWU also produced a bi-weekly newspaper, Justice, which covered national labor news as well as the news of the union; the Triangle fire was frequently commemorated in its pages.  In the 1960s, the union also won PR awards for its use of its photography archive from the early 20th century to show its members, and the nation, what turn-of-the-century sweatshops looked like.

From the end of World War II to the 1970s, the ILGWU union lost US garment jobs as well as prestige;  the union organized sweatshop workers in Puerto Rico, but eventually lost the bulk of its members’ jobs to global capitalism.  Nonetheless, reorganized as UNITE in the 1990s, the garment workers union continued to commemorate, its history.  Today UNITE pays the salary of a researcher who is working to re-catalog and digitize hundreds of linear feet of ILGWU archives at Cornell University’s Kheel Center, bringing some of these centuries old materials into the digital age.

The third lesson is:  mourn the recent past, too.  If we want to follow the example set by the ILGWU, we have our work cut out for us.  According to a 2010 AFL-CIO report there were 5,214 workers killed on the job in the US in 2008 alone.  An estimated additional 50,000 workers died that year of work-related illnesses.  4.6 million injuries were reported in 2008;  however the AFL-CIO estimates that the real number of on-the-job injuries was between 9 million and 14 million.

So this Friday, March 25th, at 4:45 PM, as bells ring out throughout New York City to correspond with the time that the fire alarm first sounded one hundred years ago, I’d like us to ask ourselves:  what are we doing to commemorate these more proximate tragedies?  What are we doing to protect the vulnerable workers of today?  And whom can we organize so that we don’t have to mourn—so frequently and so profoundly—one hundred years hence?

Kathy M. Newman