Triangle Fire Evoked as Link to Contemporary Labor Issues


Rabbi Linda Holtzman's voice quavered noticeably as she read the names of the 146 individuals — the victims were largely Jewish and Italian women — who perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York on March 25, 1911.

A day shy of a century later, more than 200 people recited the Kaddish prayer in their memory, albeit with a contemporary addition. Rather than pray only for the people of Israel, as the Kaddish suggests, Holtzman inserted a prayer for the peace of all the world's peoples.

"It is important for us to remember all of those who were killed. All of their lives were precious," Holtzman, religious leader of Mishkan Shalom in Roxborough, told the crowd at the National Museum of American Jewish History, stressing that it is an ongoing task to ensure that the lives of the garment workers, and their loss, remain meaningful.

"Remember the Triangle Fire: The Hundredth Anniversary" was co-sponsored by the Philadelphia chapter of the Jewish Labor Committee, the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, the Philadelphia Council of the AFL-CIO and the museum.

The fire — the subject of two new documentaries — has received an enormous of amount of local and national attention. Philadelphia City Council passed a resolution commemorating the it; the text was read aloud.

And President Barack Obama issued a proclamation marking the centennial, and calling upon "all Americans to participate in ceremonies and activities in memory of those who have been killed due to unsafe working conditions."

What It's Meant for the Future

The museum program attempted to strike a balance between the past and the present, reiterating the historical context surrounding the conflagration — which has occupied a significant space in Jewish American consciousness — while drawing parallels to today's labor environment.

The gathering was also a major event for the JLC, a longstanding group born out of the historic tie between Jews and the labor movement. Last year, the local JLC lost its funding from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. With a huge budget cut, the group could no longer afford a full-time director, but has hired a part-time director, Michael Hersch, to raise funds and run programs.

The fire, which was started by a discarded cigarette and ravaged a new building that had no sprinklers, shocked a nation, galvanized a labor movement — with a surge of support from Eastern European Jewish immigrants — and resulted in some significant reforms, such as limiting a woman's workweek to 52 hours and prohibiting minors from working in "dangerous situations."

Jeff Hornstein, president of the local JLC, a historian by training and a candidate for City Council, added that these efforts laid the groundwork for the far greater reforms, two decades later, during Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, such as the passage of the eight-hour workday, minimum wage and collective bargaining rights.

Marc Steir, a board member of JSPAN, a group that brings a liberal political bent to domestic-policy issues, told the audience that sweatshop and workplace disasters are still commonplace today, though they are most likely to occur in developing countries, such as Bangladesh.

Steir announced that JSPAN was adopting the "Kosher Clothing" public campaign instituted by the Los Angeles-based Progressive Jewish Alliance. The idea is to encourage individuals, synagogues, organizations, and even governments and school districts to purchase goods from manufacturers known to treat and pay workers fairly.

"We can choose to buy clothing not made in sweatshop conditions," he said.

In his speech, Patrick Eiding, president of the Philadelphia Council, AFL-CIO, drew a direct link from the fire to efforts to curtail collective bargaining rights today, particularly in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, has clashed bitterly with activists over efforts to rein in benefits in order to lower government deficits.

Keynote speaker Frank Snyder, secretary treasurer of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, stressed that ensuring the well-being of workers is still an ongoing struggle. He called on labor unions and the Jewish community to rejuvenate a partnership that has waned over decades.

"The shirtwaist fire tragedy represents not one story, not just a labor story, not just a union story, not just a woman's story, but a community story," said Snyder, adding that the subsequent reforms represented a triumph of the American "brand of advocacy and action."


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