Today is the bloody, 100-year, anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City.  146 people died in a 18 minutes in a blaze that was wholly preventable.  120 of the victims were either burned alive, or they leapt to their deaths from the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of the sweatshop located near Greenwich Village.  The deaths of the mainly immigrant, female workers, was the trigger for the start of FDR’s New Deal.

Here are NYU’s contingency plans to commemorate the dead today:

Every year, organized labor and the New York City Fire Department hold a commemoration of the tragic events of March 25, 1911, the day of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. That terrible fire took place in what is now NYU’s Brown Building, and the commemoration is held on the street outside, at the corner of Washington Place and Greene St.

Beginning at 10:00 am on Friday, we will close the Washington Place doors of the Silver Center in anticipation of the expected crowding that will accompany the ceremony. Those attending classes in Silver will probably be best off entering or exiting through the Waverly Place doors. If you intend to go south from Silver to other points on campus, we recommend that you proceed to Washington Square East or Broadway – it will likely be difficult to cut across the crowds on Washington Place at Greene or Mercer.

Here are the details of the fire:

The Triangle Fire tragically illustrated that fire inspections and precautions were woefully inadequate at the time. Workers recounted their helpless efforts to open the ninth floor doors to the Washington Place stairs. They and many others afterwards believed they were deliberately locked– owners had frequently locked the exit doors in the past, claiming that workers stole materials. For all practical purposes, the ninth floor fire escape in the Asch Building led nowhere, certainly not to safety, and it bent under the weight of the factory workers trying to escape the inferno. Others waited at the windows for the rescue workers only to discover that the firefighters’ ladders were several stories too short and the water from the hoses could not reach the top floors. Many chose to jump to their deaths rather than to burn alive.

A hundred  years ago, worker advocate Rose Schneiderman spoke eloquently after the tragedy, and her elegant words have a haunting magnitude in light of the Wisconsin betrayals of the people today:

I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting. The old Inquisition had its rack and its thumbscrews and its instruments of torture with iron teeth. We know what these things are today; the iron teeth are our necessities, the thumbscrews are the high-powered and swift machinery close to which we must work, and the rack is here in the firetrap structures that will destroy us the minute they catch on fire.

This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city. Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred. There are so many of us for one job it matters little if 146 of us are burned to death.

We have tried you citizens; we are trying you now, and you have a couple of dollars for the sorrowing mothers, brothers and sisters by way of a charity gift. But every time the workers come out in the only way they know to protest against conditions which are unbearable the strong hand of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us.

Public officials have only words of warning to us – warning that we must be intensely peaceable, and they have the workhouse just back of all their warnings. The strong hand of the law beats us back, when we rise, into the conditions that make life unbearable.

I can’t talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.

As we reflect on the Triangle tragedy a century ago, we must ask what kind of America do we want?

Do we want an America that was built on the back of labor?

Or do we want an America where GE, the world’s largest weapons manufacturer, pays exactly zero taxes to support the USA economy:

The company reported worldwide profits of $14.2 billion, and said $5.1 billion of the total came from its operations in the United States.

Its American tax bill? None. In fact, G.E. claimed a tax benefit of $3.2 billion.

I fear for the future of my country where war is the new currency and dissolving workers rights is the new bugaboo of the day.

Will it take another hundred-year tragedy like the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire to shake us awake from our ongoing American Somnambulism?

6 Comments

    1. It’s shocking to me how the Middle Class teabaggers defend the rich. I guess they think they’ll be handsomely paid for betraying the working poor. A hard reckoning is coming soon enough. Will it be too late to save the divide?

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