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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum

Remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire – 100 Years Later

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On March 25, 1911, fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory building at 29 Washington Place in New York City.  Less than 20 minutes later, 146 people were dead, mostly young immigrant women.  The fire was one of the worst industrial disasters in U.S. history, and had a major impact on work place safety, the labor movement, journalism, and many other areas of American life.  One hundred years later, the lessons of the fire are still relevant and the victims are still remembered.


Cornell University has a great website exploring the history and significance of the fire.  Particularly moving is a list of the victims that gives some information about each one (the last several victims were only positively identified this year).  Most were recent Jewish or Italian immigrant women in their late teens or early twenties.  From the introduction on the Cornell website:  


This [fire] has had great significance to this day because it highlights the inhumane working conditions to which industrial workers can be subjected. To many, its horrors epitomize the extremes of industrialism.  The tragedy still dwells in the collective memory of the nation and of the international labor movement. The victims of the tragedy are still celebrated as martyrs at the hands of industrial greed.


The family of each victim received $75 in compensation for their loss (!), and the owners of the factory were tried and acquitted of criminal charges (many victims died because doors in the building were locked to prevent theft and because there was not adequate safety equipment).  Out of this tragedy, the union movement-and in particular, the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union-was strengthened and labor laws in New York were improved. 


There are many commemorations of the event in New York City and around the country.  One website that has excellent coverage of the 100 year anniversary is the Jewish Daily Forward.  The Forward is a labor newspaper that has been around since 1897, and that covered the fire extensively in 1911.  For information on commemorations, including a poetry contest, the Forward can't be beat.  Below is the winning entry in the Forward's poetry contest:


Reckoning


She was a woman worth a certain amount


to her family: a pension or lump sum.


All I could say was this is human


when I saw her on the street, red


gathered at what must have been her neck. Count


the holes in my body -- she faced me: I retched -- some


of which I made when jumping. What man


reckons what the living owe the dead?


I didn't kill you. My every liberal part


aches for the laborer, the immigrant,


the seamstress whose callused finger bled.


I'm killed and rise up daily. My scalded heart


fibrillates, a sack of worker ants.


My words in your mouth are beit-din's lead.


-- ZACKARY SHOLEM BERGER


Originally published on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.

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