March 26, 2014
By Steven Wishnia
“We would like to think that what happened at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory was long ago, and conditions have gotten better since then,” says Stuart Appelbaum, president of Local 338 of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union. But, “in Bangladesh a year ago, almost 1,200 workers died in a factory collapse because of lack of respect for workers’ health and safety. What was true 100 years ago is true today.”
Appelbaumwas one of several hundred people who commemorated the March 25 anniversary of the 1911 blouse-factory fire that killed 146 workers, in a rally at Washington Place and Greene Street. Many held aloft blouses emblazoned with the names of victims. Esther Hochfeld. Annie Starr. Vincenza Benanti, age 19. Schoolchildren, many wearing firefighters’ hats, filled the front of the crowd. A sign on the stage read “We Are All Workers” in multiple languages, in the new-immigrant tongues of Spanish, Korean, and Haitian Creole, and the old ones of Italian and Yiddish.
The Triangle Fire galvanized both the union movement and the idea of occupational safety, although the results didn’t come to fruition until the 1930s. It was not the worst workplace disaster of the era—coal-mine explosions and fires that killed more than 100 people happened almost every year, including 362 dead at Monongah, West Virginia in 1907 and 263 in Dawson, New Mexico in 1913—but its circumstances magnified its effect. It happened in the middle of New York City, the victims were mostly young women and teenage girls, and they died horrible deaths, being burned alive or jumping from ninth-floor windows. The factory had a history of frequent fires and was full of inflammable fabrics, and many workers couldn’t escape because management had locked doors to keep them in. In the city’s first great garment-worker strike, the “uprising of the 20,000” of 1909-10, Triangle’s owners hired goons to assault strikers. They eventually gave the workers a raise and shorter hours, but refused to recognize the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.
“This is about remembrance, but it’s also about advocacy,” Vinny Alvarez of the New York City Central Labor Council told the crowd. “103 years later, the conditions that brought death to these workers continue to exist in this city and around the world,” said Noah Beasley of Workers United, the successor to the ILGWU and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union. Last year, said SEIU vice-president Valerie Long, more than 1,100 workers were killed when the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, 15 people died when an unsafe fertilizer factory in Texas blew up, and seven Chinese immigrants to Italy perished in a fire at the factory they lived in.
In Haiti, said Yannika Etienne of Batay Ouvriye (Workers Fight), garment workers “are facing practically the same conditions”—being locked inside, breathing air full of chemicals and lint, with bales of clothing blocking the exits, and all for a wage of less than $7 a day.
“Without unions, how can you fight people who are so desperate to make a profit they will put you in a place like a prison?” she asked, in a strong Creole accent. “We have to fight that system. Capitalism is a monster.”
Other speakers included Public Advocate Letitia James, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Comptroller Scott Stringer, airport worker Prince Jackson, and three women from the Carnegie Linen laundry in the Bronx, where a supervisor was recently convicted of throwing a cup of hot coffee in a worker’s face.
After Fire Department Manhattan commander John Sudnik spoke, Ladder 20, the company that responded to the 1911 fire, raised a ladder to the sixth floor—as high as they could go back then—to the sound of a somber bagpipe recording of “Amazing Grace.” Participants then recited the names of the dead, mixed with the anonymous victims of factory fires in Pakistan and Bangladesh, and a firefighter in dress uniform tolled a silvery bell for each one.
“My great-aunt, Fanny Lenzner, age 21.”
“My great-grandfather, Louis Rosen, 33.”
“Our great-aunt, Rosie Weiner,” Don Weiner and his sister intoned in unison.
“She was 19,” Weiner said. Her 16-year-old sister, Katie, was one of the last to escape: She jumped into the elevator shaft, grabbed a cable, and landed on top of the people in the descending cab. She testified for the prosecution in the trial of owners Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, and when they were acquitted, her older brother David—Weiner’s grandfather—shouted “Murderers! Where is the justice?” at them.
“It destroyed my great-grandmother,” Weiner said; she died about a year and a half later. Harris and Blanck collected about $350 in insurance for each worker killed. The surviving families got about $75.
Weiner only learned this when he started researching his family’s genealogy. “My own father didn’t know,” he says. He’s now heavily involved in efforts to remember the fire.
Formerly an executive at Deutsche Bank, Weiner used to consider unions and their demands “a pain in the tush.”
“I never understood what unions stood for until I learned about this,” he said.