Centenaries and Memory

Today is the hundredth anniversary of the Triangle Shirt Factory fire in New York City, a signal event in the history of the American worker, and one that is drawing a remarkable degree of attention from a world so far from the one in which it occurred. This past December was my father’s hundredth birthday. I wrote about it here. Centenaries are landmark occasions, not just in themselves, but because, unless the subject is a nation or an artist of monumental stature, it is probably the last time that any widespread, honorific attention will be paid to it.

My father worked for many decades as a sewing machine operator making furs, in the garment district of New York City, which by his time was located in the West 20s and 30s of Manhattan. The Triangle Factory fire occurred on the lower East Side, a generation before my father began his apprenticeship. Certainly, his children will note my father’s birthday the rest of their lives. His grandchildren, who loved him well, will always think of him, and his great-grandchildren will have a photo to look at, of themselves as infants in his arms – the self staring at the self that is not itself, that has no memory, and trying to make the connection. Almost certainly, again, no one will mark my father’s 150th birthday.

What will the Triangle Fire mean, what will be made of it, fifty years from now? You can read and view fine, informative accounts of it here, here, here, and here. It is obvious to those who pay attention and care, that the Triangle centenary comes, ironically, at time of unprecedented assault, since their rise, on worker rights, on organized labor, and on the idea of the working middle class, and not a wealth-engorged, ruling business class, as the center piece of American democracy. Aaron Rutkoff of the Wall Street Journal’s Metropolis blog interviewed Lee Adler (no relation I know of) of Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

Walk me through the direct aftermath. The Triangle fire is often credited with spurring labor reforms, but how did that play out?

Adler: There was a rapid increase throughout America in the passage of workers’ compensation laws. Up until this fire, workers’ compensation bills were not terribly prolific in America. Oddly enough, given what’s going on now in Wisconsin, they passed the first successful workers’ comp legislation in 1911 -– more or less flowing out of this sutation. Within part because of the Triangle fire, in five years we see every state in America pass workers’ comp legislation.

In 1913, for the first time in the U.S. government, the Department of Labor was established. There had been previous things like it but there had never been a government agency. One of the first efforts was to compile statistics on workplace injuries. They looked at lead smelters, match factories, coal mines and steel making.

Did Triangle lead directly to a rise in labor unions?

Adler: I would describe the period immediately after the fire as one that was difficult for labor organizing. There was no mandatory legislation anywhere in the U.S. that permitted collective bargaining. There was no right to collectively bargain anywhere in America before 1935.

The Wisconsin history is pungent enough, but consider that many in the GOP and on the Right today would abolish the Department of Labor. Today, in states across the union and in the House of Representatives, GOP legislation is now being presented and passed that abolishes labor rights, that eliminates emergency food aid for the children of striking workers, that further taxes the poor and infirm while cutting taxes for business. GOP leaders have spoken out over the past year against unemployment insurance and openly begrudge people the worker’s compensation benefits Adler speaks of above. Meanwhile, a significant segment of the working population has been persuaded of a political philosophy, and sold on a national mythos, that leads it to align its sympathies against its interests and with an increasingly plutocratic political system. These working people believe that systemic benefits for the rich are spurs to economic growth, but that any government benefit provided to workers makes them malingerers and moochers, or as one commenter wrote in response to me, of public sector union members, maggots. Fortunately, this opera-singing, proud conservative lover of Jesus and all things Texas only thinks non Tea Partying protestors to be mobsters.

The GOP today represents not a conservative, but the most reactionary, retrogressive major political party ever to be active on the American scene. Adler indicates above that the immediate aftermath of the Triangle fire was not a hopeful one for organized labor, though it did lead to increased focus on safe working conditions. What Triangle can most usefully symbolize now is the same kind of struggle to supersede the nineteenth century that it came to represent then.


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