Mourners picketing after the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. (Photo/Kheel Center for Labor Management Documentation and Archives)
Mourners picketing after the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. (Photo/Kheel Center for Labor Management Documentation and Archives)

110 years later, the Triangle Factory Fire still has lessons to teach

March 25, 1911. A dropped cigarette on the eighth floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory adjacent to New York City’s Washington Square started the fire. Doors were locked — and one opened inward.

So 53 workers (mostly young women) jumped, 19 fell down the elevator shaft, more than 20 fell from the fire escape and 50 burned on the factory floor. With 102 Jews among the 146 workers killed in the fire, the sorrow and outrage in the Jewish community was deep and strong, and to me, this tragedy — acknowledged as labor and feminist history — became part of Jewish history as well.

Right after the fire, anger spanned the breadth of the Jewish community.

“This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city,” socialist Rose Schneiderman cried at a major meeting after the fire. “Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed.” And at that same meeting, leading Reform Rabbi Stephen S. Wise said, “It is not the action of God but the inaction of man that is responsible. The disaster was not the deed of God but the greed of man.”

Some workplace safety reform was enacted in the years following the fire, but in the intervening 110 years, has the fire really been remembered?

Mostly by the now defunct and Schneiderman-founded International Ladies Garment Workers Union, the Jewish Labor Committee or the Workers Circle on significant anniversaries. However, at the centennial of the fire 10 years ago, the group Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition was born, and it holds yearly commemorations (this year, virtually) on March 25. Visit rememberthetrianglefire.org for details.

Twenty-one years ago, historian Paula Hyman claimed that “for American Jews, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire is no longer a central evocative symbol. American Jews are far removed from their working-class past, and the Lower East Side they seek to remember is suffused with nostalgia, but not with pain. It is the mythic launching pad for success, not the site of suffering.”

I don’t agree with the late Hyman, and think she would have been quite surprised by the response across the Jewish community to the Triangle centennial 10 years ago.

Here in the Bay Area, several hundred people filled the Jewish Community Library for the Northern California centennial commemoration. But I wish I could point to continued attention and activity in the Jewish community to Triangle and the issues it represents.

Back when I worked as West Coast public affairs coordinator for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), I was sent to Honolulu during a strike of blue-collar state employees. I was surprised at the high support for the strike among white-collar professionals, and when I asked some of them why, they immediately told me of a grandfather or great-aunt who had worked in the sugar cane or pineapple fields. I so envied their strong sense of identification with the challenges that faced earlier generations of their family.

What Triangle brought into sharpest focus 110 years ago was the lack of workplace safety, and the past year of Covid-19 has found us facing major new challenges to maintain workplace — and public — safety and health.

Part of meeting those challenges is reflected by issues such as requiring that teachers are vaccinated before schools reopen. Emergency Temporary Standards (ETS) have been added to Cal/OSHA workplace health and safety regulations, including a requirement that people who have been exposed to Covid-19 must be excluded from the workplace, and paid for their time in quarantine.

“If exposed workers are not paid for the time they must take off, then they’ll be afraid to disclose that they’ve been exposed,” Frances Schreiberg, a board member of the Working America Educational Fund, told me. But employer groups strongly disagreed, and sought an injunction.

On Feb. 25, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Ethan Schulman upheld the emergency standards, and wrote that an injunction “threatens to seriously jeopardize worker safety and the public health.” The provisions of the ETS, the judge stressed, are at the heart of OSHA’s “attempt to curb the spread of Covid-19.”

I believe the commemoration of the Triangle Fire reminds us of the importance of acknowledging with pride that we are descended from a strong Jewish working class. We should reclaim the Triangle victims as part of our extended family and the Jewish working class and Jewish labor movement as a central part of American Jewish history.

Judy Baston
Judy Baston

Judy Baston is a longtime volunteer for the Jewish Community Library.