Newark Fire Blaze Triangle’s Ignored Harbinger’s Death Garb
This Friday marks the 111th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in lower Manhattan, which killed 146 garment workers, mostly young immigrants, who were trapped because the factory owners had locked exits, according to some accounts, to prevent union organizers from entering.
As in the past, unions and their supporters will mark the solemn occasion of these workplace deaths. Yet this year they will also reflect on the continuing workplace safety risks revealed by the COVID pandemic that has claimed the lives of thousands and thousands of workers.
We have no idea how many healthcare workers, first responders and others essential workers have died to keep the state and our nation from functioning. Even now, as countless numbers of people deal with the potentially crippling long-term consequences of COVID, there is little stomach in Washington to investigate how the government’s handling of the mass death event has worsened the situation. But that doesn’t absolve us of the moral obligation to try to find out.
HAVE THE COURAGE TO REMEMBER
History can come to life and speak to us in the present if we have the perseverance and passion to keep rediscovering it. This would be essential, especially if, by resuscitating the past, we can learn the lessons of the horrific tragedies that we often tend to want to keep buried with the dead. This is especially the case when hard truths are inconvenient because they hinder trade.
An example would be the work done by veteran journalist Guy Sterling who several years ago applied his considerable reporting skills to revisit the circumstances surrounding the 1910 High Street factory fire [now MLK Boulevard] which left 26 garment workers dead who had escaped our collective consciousness.
The fire started after a can of gasoline toppled one floor below where the Wolf Muslin Undergarment Company was located. “Most of the victims jumped to their deaths, some horribly impaled on a spiked metal fence,” the report said. New York Times in a detailed account of Sterling’s inquest, which determined that the dead women were between 16 and 59 years old and that three of them, Minnie, Tillie and Dora Gottlieb, were 19, 21 and 29 when they deceased.
The horrific fire of November 26, 1910, not far from Broad Street Station in Newark, preceded by just four months the mass fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory that claimed five times as many lives. Both fires have brought closer scrutiny of the poor working conditions that millions of Americans have been forced to endure in an economy where capital interests have all the power and workers have been told they have just lucky to have a job.
In 2010, on the 100th anniversary of the Newark fire, Sterling held a commemoration of “the deadliest incident of its kind in the city’s history” which occurred when 100 female workers of the garment “made muslin nightgowns on the top floor of a Civil War era.” brick building in time for the Christmas rush.
In a move Youtube In a 2013 interview, Sterling said the High Street fire “lost its historical significance in Newark and people weren’t really aware of it and didn’t know what happened at that site. It’s a place that is prime viewing in Newark.People come to this site by the thousands every day.
In the in-depth interview, Sterling said that while the fire dominated local and even national media attention, the official coroner’s inquest found that “there was no culpability here, no one was to blame – that this particular incident was an accident and a mishap which is the official reason given for the loss of these lives… No one has ever been held responsible.
Yet, ironically, Sterling recounts that during New York’s official inquiry into the lower Manhattan fire four months later, panel members were “very interested” in knowing why the Newark conflagration had not served as a call to action in a city was the exact same conditions were commonplace.
These women were paid in dollars per week and worked at least 12 hours a day, seven days a week.
Many Triangle workers also had to jump several floors to their death because the factory owners, who were staunchly anti-union, had operated the site with so little access to exits. Triangle owners resisted signing a union contract, unlike other garment factory owners who settled with garment workers after their 1909 general strike shut down the industry in New York when 20,000 garment workers, mostly women, took to the streets.
Triangle clothing factory owners Max Blanck and Issac Harris, also known as the ‘Shirtwaist Kings’, have been acquitted of manslaughter. Yet they were condemned forever by the court of public opinion, which was told by the revelation that they had had fires at this Triangle site before and that their Diamond Waist Company factory had also burned down twice before.
The appalling mass fire of 1911, with its long list of casualties, shortly after the Newark fire, sparked a national call for reform that led to improved fire protection standards on the workplace and wage and hour regulations. So far during the pandemic, with the exception of the respectful memorial cameos offered by Governor Murphy, we have no accurate account of the terrible toll of COVID on essential workers and their families in our state nor across the country.
REFLECTING ON THE TRIANGLE IN THE AGE OF COVID
“It’s been more than a century since the Triangle Shirtwaist tragedy – which launched today’s labor movement and helped establish modern workplace safety standards,” Fran Ehret, NJ CWA’s executive director, wrote to InsiderNJ. . “But, as we have seen far too often over these many years, we must continue the fight to protect workers. The COVID pandemic makes it crystal clear how vigilant we need to be when it comes to safety, wages and working conditions. Just as lasting and positive change has risen from the ashes of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, I sincerely hope we see more care and protection for workers as society begins to emerge from the past two difficult years. .
“Nurses and health care workers are most often women and people of color who have faced the greatest challenges of their lives over the past two years,” wrote Debbie White, president of HPAE, the most New Jersey’s largest union of registered nurses and health care professionals. “The COVID-19 pandemic workers exposed to a highly contagious disease and far too many have fallen ill and some have even deceased. As a result, many have been traumatized and left the labor market, compounding an already existing staffing shortage. We need to implement much-needed workplace reforms, including better benefits, increased compensation and better security protocols to recruit and retain our healthcare staff.
John Samuelsen, international president of the Transport Workers Union, which represents several thousand New Jersey workers in the airline, transit and railroad industries, said the evolving COVID health crisis facing facing frontline workers was much like what workers experienced following the 9/11 WTC attack and cleanup when the US EPA said the air in lower Manhattan was safely breathable.
“We’re already seeing long-term COVID health issues in this workforce and while some bosses think that’s imaginary, let me assure you that’s not the case,” Samuelsen said. . “We are having issues with some doctors who will concede that they see these issues anecdotally as chronic joint pain, sinus issues, and even neurological issues like brain fog, but they won’t make the official link for the disability in workers’ compensation claims. This is going to require some sort of federal action.
Samuelsen credited Gov. Phil Murphy with pushing for a presumption of workers’ compensation for essential workers exposed on the job to the deadly virus, something New York state has yet to do. Yet despite the presumption of COVID, unions report that some employers are fighting their workers’ long-term COVID claims.
TWU Local 100, which operates New York’s subway and bus system, has lost more than 100 members.
In April, the Guardian and Kaiser health news reported that in the first year of COVID, 3,600 American healthcare workers died as a result of their occupational exposure to the virus. Two-thirds of those deaths were people of color. NPR reported that COVID was the leading cause of police death in 2021 when nearly 500 officers died in the line of duty, a 55% spike from the previous year.
Mary Anne Trasciatti is chair of the Remember the Triangle Fire coalition and director of labor studies at Hofstra University. With Edvige Giunta, she edited Talking to the Girls: Intimate and Political Essays on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire which has just been published by New Village Press.
“Essential workers during the COVID pandemic are the Triangle workers of today,” Trasciatti said in a phone interview. “These are the people who went to work not knowing if they would fall ill with a fatal disease and in doing so put their families at risk. And just as in 1911, when immigrant workers were considered expendable, in the 21st century they are still considered expendable by some employers.
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