Jessica Max Stein

Remember the Triangle Fire

Filed By Jessica Max Stein | March 25, 2011 8:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Living, Politics
Tags: Elana Dykewomon, Jessica Max Stein, Meredith Tax, unions

Today is the centennial of the Triangle Waist Factory Fire - more familiarly the Triangle Fire - a 1911 blaze near Manhattan's Washington Square that killed 5780pb31f12in1200g.jpg146 garment workers, most young immigrant Jewish and Italian women, many just in their teens.

The fire was "a half-hour of horror," quick and deadly. It is hard not to think of 9/11 when reading about the women jumping from ninth-story windows, choosing between death by flame or by pavement. The tragedy was gory, heartbreaking - and entirely preventable.

Though the building itself was fireproof - and still stands, as a science building for New York University - its contents were a dangerous firetrap: oily rags, lint, the air itself a thick cloud of flammable cotton dust. Yet fifty years ago, on the anniversary of the fire, labor organizer David Dubinsky blamed more than just an errant spark for the tragedy.

Triangle locked its doors. Yes, it barred its doors so that no union organizer could get in and not a scrap of fabric worth half a penny could get out.... Greed locked the doors. Greed made the doors open inward instead of outward. Greed put a cheap fire escape on the backside of the building, so cheap that it collapsed, throwing scores more to their deaths. Greed said no fire drills. Greed commanded that there be no fire sprinklers.

The factory's owners had long shown little concern for their employees. Two years earlier, when the workers managed to organize a union, the owners pretended to close the factory, sent everyone home, and hired scab replacements. The workers called a strike, and picketed; the owners retaliated by hiring gangsters to harass and intimidate the women on the picket line. (The story is vividly told in Meredith Tax's sexy novel Rivington Street; another indispensible novel is Elana Dykewomon's Beyond the Pale, a queerer retelling of Triangle and its times.)

Sadly, in many ways the fire achieved what the union could not. The Times writes,

In direct response to the fire, the New York Legislature enacted laws requiring automatic sprinklers in high-rise buildings, mandatory fire drills at large companies and factory doors that swung out. Other changes grew out of the fire, including a 54-hour week for women and child workers.

I want us to remember this history as government employees in Wisconsin lose their bargaining rights, and as the gap between the rich and poor in America widens alarmingly (and needlessly).

Let us not wait for another tragedy to remind us of the need for workers' rights. These ladies easily could have been my ancestors, all those Yettas and Roses, so perhaps I take this history personally.

No one is expendable, and money is a particularly silly reason for hierarchy. Let us not forget the Triangle Fire, and please let us not repeat history.

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Thanks for posting about this, Max. I just listened to the Democracy Now show about the fire and it got me to thinking about if that happened today, would the state react the same way or would it just ignore the problem?

I'm worried right now that governments are ignoring/will ignore the disaster in Japan and keep on developing nuclear power that doesn't meet safety requirements. We just don't seem able to get governments to even notice huge disasters anymore.