This Friday marks the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, one of the worst industrial accidents in the history of the United States. PBS recently explored the Triangle Fire in a documentary looking not just at the fire itself, but the culture of labour rights 100 years ago, and the consequences of the fire in terms of workplace protections, unionisation, and public awareness of unsafe working conditions. As PBS points out, many New Yorkers adopted the victims of the fire as a cause celebre, with mass funerals attended by thousands of people from all social classes, and this did not occur in a vacuum.
146 men and women, many in their teens, died in the Triangle Fire. It had a profound impact on labour policy in the United States and was a jarring wakeup call for people who were unaware of the largely unregulated conditions in workplaces like factories, mills, and sweatshops. In the wake of the fire, there were immediate calls for reform, resulting in the subsequent passage of more aggressive labour laws. As Hilda L. Solis reminds readers, the lessons of the fire still resonate today.
The American Experience Triangle Fire documentary took a unique tack. Rather than focusing solely on the events of the fire and providing viewers with ample disaster porn, it took a wide angle approach, examining the social and cultural context of the fire as well as placing it firmly in labour history. Yes, the narration is cheesy, but the story is real.
The bulk of the documentary focuses on the history of organising in New York City at the turn of the last century, with a particular focus on the role of women, often erased in histories of the era that focus on upper class suffragettes to the exclusion of members of the lower class fighting for the right to live and work in safety. Prior to the Triangle Fire, garment workers across New York had struck for unionisation in 1909, and one of the reasons they were able to hold out long enough to get real concessions was because of support from Triangle workers.
‘Triangle Fire’ highlights the role of young immigrant women in labour organising in the United States, pointing out that the tipping point for the 1909 garment worker strike in New York was a women who leaped on the podium to demand action now, and words later. Clara Lemlich was a ferocious and aggressive union organiser who motivated not just garment workers, but women of the upper classes, into supporting the strike, doing so at great personal cost, with ribs broken by the Pinkertons for her organising activities.
The documentary provides ample information about not just the unsafe working conditions, but the dismal living conditions for many garment workers in New York at the time. They lived primarily in crowded tenements with limited access to basic hygiene, and were often forced to share crowded rooms to cope with high rents. Oddly, ‘Triangle Fire’ suggests that workers must have ambled along Fifth Avenue to see the sights on Sundays, though how having the full scope of class inequality rubbed in your face would be recreational is beyond me.
Ultimately, the Triangle workers, striking for unionisation to access better pay and safer working conditions, failed, and returned to work with some labour concessions, but without a union. A union might not have been able to keep the Greene Street door unlocked, but it would have documented the dangerous conditions in a factory that was essentially a firetrap, not just because of the locked door but because of a damaged fire escape, piles of highly flammable cotton scraps, and rows of machines bolted to the floor, making escape nearly impossible. A union might have pointed out that the fire department’s ladders couldn’t even reach the factory floor from the ground.
The events of the fire are only briefly covered in the documentary; it points out that the fire spread extremely rapidly and rapidly attracted attention as smoke billowed from the upper floors of the Asch Building and the workers became increasingly desperate to escape. The dramatisation of the fire illustrates why it became such a moving public cause, as members of the public were forced to watch young women and men dying before their eyes. The narrative picks up after the fire with a discussion of the legislation put through reactively in response to public anger and demands. New York’s workplace safety legislation later became a model for the rest of the United States, triggering massive workplace reforms and improving conditions radically in factory environments.
We face escalating attacks on labour rights and unions today, as protestors across the country mobilize in defense of unions and the protections they offer. Meanwhile, unsafe working conditions are on the rise again, whether in mines, on oil rigs, or in meat packing plants. The same people vulnerable to exploitation in 1911 are labouring in unsafe conditions in 2011: immigrants, struggling for a piece of the American dream, threatened by factory bosses and kept ignorant of their rights and the responsibilities of their employers under the law.
The Triangle Fire was a wakeup call for the United States, and this documentary is a reminder that we need to tighten up workplace safety protections, we need to support unions, and we need to prevent another Triangle Fire.