Monday, March 28, 2011

Triangle Factory Fire and Unions


Sunday, the BF took me along on a tour of Lower East Side sites associated with the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. March 25th was the 100th anniversary of the fire, in which 146 sweatshop workers, mostly young immigrant girls, lost their lives. The fire began on the 8th floor, and the workers on that floor and the management on the 10th floor mostly managed to escape, but no one alerted the workers on the 9th floor. When the flames began coming in the windows and up through the floor, the 9th floor workers were trapped. The elevator cables had melted in the heat, as had the bolts holding outside fire escape together. Panicked workers ran for the stairs, but the fire door had been chained shut by the factory owners, who didn't want girls "pilfering" thread and fabric from the factory. Those who didn't burn inside jumped to their deaths out the windows; the ladders on the fire trucks of the time only went up 6 stories and no one could reach them. Many girls jumped in groups, holding hands while they fell.

Every year on the anniversary of the fire, people chalk the names of the victims on the sidewalks in front of the factory and in front of nearby tenement buildings in the East Village and Lower East Side, where manyof the workers lived. The tour took us past a few of those buildings, and also to the sites of early labor union meeting places, which is of particular interest to me right now because I'm a union member.

This is the first time in my working life that I'm in a union, and I'm digging it. It gives me old-guy cred in case I want to go bowling or to the Staten Island Gun Club, and more importantly, it connects me to those brave women in the early labor movements who were trying to change the horrible working conditions in sweatshops like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. The history of women in the labor movement gives me that swooping-heart, tears-in-your-eyes, fuck-yeah-feminism feeling whenever I think about it. I'm glad to be a part of it.

Not a lot of American workers are in unions anymore, which is kind of a shame. Most of us define ourselves by our jobs, and if you can feel that you're part of something bigger than yourself, then you feel a whole helluva lot better about that paper pushing. You feel working-girl pride instead of wage-slave ennui.

This one's for the shirtwaist girls. You are remembered.

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