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Triangle memorial procession
Procession in memory of victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire

If you're like me, you learned about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in high school history, but what you learned was fairly sketchy—the opening paragraph of its Wikipedia entry probably about captures it:

The fire caused the deaths of 146 garment workers, who either died from the fire or jumped to their deaths. Most of the victims were recent immigrant Jewish women, age 16-23. Many of the workers could not escape the burning building because the managers had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits. People jumped from the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors. The fire led to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, which fought for better working conditions for sweatshop workers.

As you might guess, that leaves out rather a lot.

This is the week of the 100th anniversary of the Triangle fire, and tomorrow (Monday) night at 9:00, HBO is airing a new documentary. Triangle: Remembering the Fire is relatively brief, but it adds a great deal to the sketch, on several levels.

The documentary first places the Triangle fire in context: Less than two years earlier, garment workers had gone on strike in the Uprising of 20,000, making outrageous demands like a 52-hour work week and overtime pay.

Meanwhile, the fiercely anti-union owners of the Triangle factory met with owners of the 20 largest factories to form a manufacturing association. Many of the strike leaders worked there, and the Triangle owners wanted to make sure other factory owners were committed to doing whatever it took—from using physical force (by hiring thugs to beat up strikers) to political pressure (which got the police on their side)—to not back down.

Soon after, police officers began arresting strikers, and judges fined them and sentenced some to labor camps. One judge, while sentencing a picketer for “incitement,” explained, “You are striking against God and Nature, whose law is that man shall earn his bread by the sweat of his brow. You are on strike against God!”

The Triangle company held out, the workers went back, and the safety concerns they raised went unaddressed. That New York's garment workers had been fighting for better treatment, and that many of the fire's deaths might have been prevented had they succeeded, is a central part of the context Triangle: Remembering the Fire provides.

That context of struggle is crucial to understanding the fire's aftermath, in which New York instituted a range of workplace protections. Frances Perkins would later famously call March 25, 1911 "the day the New Deal began."

We don't, in other words, have fire alarms and sprinklers and adequate exits and other workplace protections because big employers want us to have them. We don't have them solely because of tragedy. We have them because workers have joined together and fought for them. In 1911, workers' struggle was the context that made the Triangle fire something other than a meaningless accident, that showed a way to prevent similar tragedies.

Triangle: Remembering the Fire does something else as well. It vividly, forcefully puts the humanity of the Triangle workers in front of us. Much of it is told by descendants of the fire's victims and survivors, and augmented by photos of the victims. It takes hold of you, all their beautiful serious faces—teenagers working 60 or 70 hour weeks, recent immigrants struggling to get ahead. And after the fire, their families were left struggling to identify them from the smallest remnants, seemingly inconsequential possessions that survived.

The care this documentary shows for the workers of the Triangle company is exquisite, so much so that finally the list of the fire's victims is complete. Michael Hirsch, one of its writers and co-producers and a longtime member of the Daily Kos community, searched out the final six names:

No New York City agencies and no newspapers at the time produced a complete list of the dead, Mr. Hirsch said. The most thorough list — 140 names — was compiled by Mr. Von Drehle when he wrote his book, and that was largely based on names plucked from accounts in four contemporary newspapers.

The obscurity of their names is evidence of the times, when lives were lived quietly and people were forced by economic and familial circumstances to swiftly move on from tragedies — with no Facebook or reality television cameras to record their every step and thought.

Mr. Hirsch, 50, an amateur genealogist and historian who was hired as a co-producer of the coming HBO documentary “Triangle: Remembering the Fire,” undertook an exhaustive search lasting more than four years. He returned to the microfilms of mainstream daily newspapers overlooked by researchers before him and to ethnic publications that he asked to have translated, like the Yiddish-language Jewish Daily Forward and Il Giornale Italiano. He estimates that he consulted 32 different newspapers.

(He also appeared on CBS News Sunday today.)

Triangle: Remembering the Fire is an indispensable memorial to the 146 working men and women who died horrible deaths on March 25, 1911, doing justice to both the story of lives lost and families grieving and to the story of struggle for workers' rights and the importance of government regulations.

Those two sides of the story would often be called the human side and the political side, but this documentary ultimately reveals the inadequacy of that binary opposition. The Uprising of 20,000 is a human and a political story, with women risking their livelihoods and freedom for better working conditions. The long hours and brutal working conditions garment workers faced—including the fire that killed 146 of them—are a human and a political story. "Government regulations" and "workplace safety laws" sound like dry terms, but this is what they're about: nothing less than people's lives. And that is something to remember when you hear the likes of Scott Walker and John Kasich arguing that employers oughtn't be bound by those pesky government regulations.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Sun Mar 20, 2011 at 04:03 PM PDT.

Also republished by In Support of Labor and Unions, New York City, and History for Kossacks.

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