Friday, March 25, 2011

The 100th Anniversary of the Triangle Fire

Today is the centenary of the fire at the Triangle Waist Company. On March 25th, 1911, at least 146 workers, most of them young immigrant women, died because the owners of the garment factory sweatshop where they labored over their sewing machines cared more about profits than about the safety of workers. A fire broke out. Within sixteen minutes, about half of those who died had jumped to their deaths from the ninth floor, while the rest died in the fire that roared through the top three floors of the ten-story Asch Building, just a block west of Washington Square.

The Triangle fire is at the heart of my 2006 novel Triangle, which I was inspired to write because my paternal grandmother, Pauline Gottesfeld Kaufman, finished buttonholes at the Triangle Waist Company in 1909. I am in the HBO documentary about the fire discussing Pauline's violent encounter with a policeman during the uprising of the 20,000 garment workers in 1909.

I don't have much new to say about this event that has not already been said very well by so many other people as the Triangle fire centenary has loomed (other than to insist that the proper term for a 100th anniversary is "centenary" and not "centennial," but I am a lone voice in the wilderness of imprecision.) I have participated in a number of panels and other events, and I spoke this week at Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue, where my fancier Warburgian maternal forebears were "twice-a-year" Jews.

What are the lessons of the Triangle fire? I fear we are still learning them. Today, please stop to think about where your clothing comes from, and think about the lives of the people who made what you are wearing right now. What do they eat? Where do they sleep? What are their living conditions? What are their working conditions? How much do they get paid? Garment factory workers, many of them children, are still dying in garment factory fires that are shockingly familiar: Locked doors, undocumented workers employed by sub-contractors, extremely unsafe conditions, a fire.

The only difference between 1911 and 2011 is that in this era of outsourcing, now that so many of our cheap garments are made in unsafe factories in third world countries, we outsource our tragedies, too. Are you comfortable in those clothes?