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Tragic Fire Resonates Across Time, as Labor Issues Resurge

March 10, 2011 By:
Jay M. Starr
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Rabbi Shmuel Plafker of the Hebrew Free Burial Association at the grave of Beckie Reines, an 18-year-old victim of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire 100 years ago this month

Most of our great-grandparents and grandparents landed here from Eastern Europe between 1880 and 1920 in four great waves of immigration, and quickly grasped the differences between America and Europe. Although they'd known poverty in their shtetls, the conditions of the sweatshops and mills of industrial America were new.

But here they found the freedom to speak, write and gather forbidden to them in Europe. Here, too, they found an active labor movement that they joined, fought for and led. Abraham Cahan's daily newspaper captured the Yiddish-speaking heart of Jewish labor: "The Forward is the workingman's organ in his righteous fight against oppression ... its soul is the liberation of mankind -- justice, humanity, fraternity."

In 1911, Triangle Shirtwaist was the largest blouse-maker in New York. Owners Isaac Harris and Max Blanck were the "Shirtwaist Kings." They owned a 10-story building on Washington Square. Triangle operated from the top three floors.

Most workers were Jewish women: recent immigrants as young as 15 years old, vulnerable and exploited, toiling in 10-hour shifts. New workers made about $2.50 weekly; experienced workers made about $12. They barely subsisted, living in tenements in horrific conditions. Many of the young women had survived pogroms, traveled to America alone, mastered their jobs and were supporting parents with large families still in Russia.

On Triangle's ninth floor, 200 girls and their machines crowded on top of each other in an unsanitary, badly ventilated, confined space cluttered with cloth, rags, machine oil and dust. Closing time on Saturday, March 25, 1911, the eighth floor caught fire, probably from a cigarette.

Flames blocked the stairwell, cutting off the ninth floor. Workers were crushed against the only other exit. It was locked. Firefighters' ladders only reached the sixth floor; fire hoses lacked water pressure to reach the flames.

Girls leaped hand-in-hand from windows, crashing through the firemen's nets and dying on the sidewalk. Many jumped with hair and clothes burning, screaming as they fell. Others, caught inside, burned alive or suffocated.

It only took 18 minutes. When it was over, there were 146 dead. It's estimated that about 10,000 people witnessed the fire. Quickly, the shocked and angry crowd doubled in size and wouldn't leave.

Jewish groups quickly organized relief. The ILGWU, Workmen's Circle, the Forward, United Hebrew Trades and the Women's Trade Union League formed the Joint Relief Committee. It paid for burials and sent money to victims' families in Russia. The Committee granted small pensions and supervised hospitalization.

Harris and Blanck were tried for manslaughter, but were acquitted. It wasn't proved beyond a doubt that the owners knew the doors were locked. In 1913, they settled civil suits, paying $75 for each victim. Triangle's insurance paid the equivalent of $400 per victim.

A week after the fire, the enraged Jewish unions rallied in Washington Square. Thousands gathered. It took more than three hours for the last marcher to pass under the arch. Public outcry demanded hearings that led to new workplace laws.

Triangle -- the fourth worst industrial fire in U.S. history -- remains a symbol of industrial greed, worker abuse and exploitation. In its wake, thousands joined the labor movement, transforming the mostly Jewish ILGWU into a powerhouse.

For 130 years, American Jews have fought for social and economic justice, even as we transformed ourselves from industrial labor to entrepreneurs and professionals. However, the collective memory of our immigrant generations toiling in desperate conditions and their fight for dignity has dimmed; Jewish community support for labor's continuing struggles is much diminished.

Today, the hard-won workplace health, safety and wage protections we take for granted are under aggressive attack in Wisconsin and elsewhere. As we approach Triangle's centennial, we do well to remember that labor rights are the legacy of generations of American workers -- not least the Triangle women, who earned them with blood, toil and sacrifice.

It's the moral legacy of the Jewish experience in America. It isn't ours to forget or abandon. It's a living trust that binds our generations one to another.

Jay Starr is immediate past chairman of the Gratz College board of governors.

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