YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

From horror, a swelling tide of reform

Triangle: The Fire That Changed America, David Von Drehle, Atlantic Monthly Press: 340 pp., $25

August 31, 2003|Vivian Gornick | Vivian Gornick is a contributing writer to Book Review.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire has, in American labor history, iconic status. The 146 people who either jumped to their deaths or burned inside the ninth-floor factory in Lower Manhattan at 5 in the afternoon on Saturday, March 25, 1911, became an incarnation of the courage born of despair that was required, at the turn of the 20th century, to raise a huge American underclass to the simple level of citizens of the republic.

That something momentous had occurred when the factory burned was immediately understood: "Four days [after the fire], some 350,000 people participated in a funeral march for the Triangle dead. [A] quarter of a million more lined the route and watched in silence. The whole city was muffled in black: black bunting on hundreds of buildings; multitudes in black dresses and suits and hats and coats.... It was [as one newspaper noted], 'one of the most impressive spectacles of sorrow New York has ever known.' "

The story has been told before and, of course, receives a major mention in nearly every account of United States labor history, but now David Von Drehle, a Washington Post journalist, tells it again in a strong piece of writing whose edge seems to have been supplied by a haunting sense of Sept. 11, 2001. At the end of Von Drehle's book is a complete list (the first ever compiled) of the Triangle dead, reminiscent of the brief biographies published of all those who perished when the World Trade Center went down. It is as though Von Drehle is saying, 90 years after the fact, "They are still not expendable."

The Triangle fire raised many issues, the most immediate of which was that of worker safety: Not a factory in New York was equipped with sprinklers, firewalls or fireproof doors, although all were available at the time. At the Triangle there was no fire escape of any consequence, and one door was fatally locked.

But the fundamental issue of the fire was this: The people at the machines were not considered human by the people who owned the factories, even though the factory owners themselves had, only yesterday, been the people at the machines.

Workers and owners alike were uneducated immigrants, and they were living in a world in which powerless people, once treated like animals, became predators themselves when they gained power. Or as Hannah Arendt once put it, "The humanity of the insulted and injured has never yet survived the hour of liberation by so much as a minute." This is what the Triangle fire spoke to and why it has remained an event of symbolic meaning in labor history.

Behind the fire lay the extraordinary history of sweatshop labor and the fledgling beginnings of union organizing.

Millions of immigrants, living in unspeakable filth and poverty in the tenement districts of large American cities (none greater than New York's Lower East Side), were working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, sewing clothes in conditions equivalent to, if not worse than, the tenements. But the essence of the sweatshop was not even the inhumanity of the hours and the working conditions; it was the practice of "sweating" the workers. At the end of an 80-hour week in some dark, crowded, filthy shop, a worker, sewing sleeves into blouses at 5 cents a dozen, might think she had earned $4 or $5; but then she would find that she was being charged for the thread and needles she used, the sewing machine power she generated with her feet, the chair on which she sat and the locker in which she stored her coat and handbag. The system destroyed both body and soul.

By the turn of the 20th century, sweatshop labor had been replaced by the large loft factories that promised to make working life in the clothing industry infinitely better but didn't. The crowding was still terrible, the hours were just as primitive and the small humiliations that marked a worker's day remained unchanged: They were fined if they went to the toilet, fined if they were five minutes late to work, fired if they complained about the bad light, the crowded floor, the filthy bathrooms.

Small efforts at unionizing had begun, but only wildcat strikes had occurred. Then an astonishing thing happened. On Nov. 22, 1909, 15,000 shirtwaist workers -- almost all women -- went out on strike; the next day 5,000 more joined them. Brave, passionate, firebrand workers among the immigrant women had overcome the fearful caution of Local 25, the newly formed shirtwaist workers union, and the euphoria of revolt swept the Lower East Side.

From the growing progressive movement came a thrilling surge of support: Society women joined the picket line, as did suffragists, socialists, social workers and college students from Wellesley and Vassar. But strikebreakers were brought in, picketers were arrested and the law sided with the owners. Although the strike dragged on until mid-February, in the end it fell apart.

Los Angeles Times Articles