triangle fire: 100 years on and never more relevant

March 25 was the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Factory Fire, a seminal moment in the history of the American labour movement. I was surprised that the date received as much recognition as it did, with stories about the fire and the anniversary commemorations making the rounds everywhere I looked. That was good to see, but unfortunately few of those stories spelled out why the anniversary is so painfully relevant to our present world.

In North America, laws protecting workers' safety have been systematically weakened and dismantled over the last 30 years. For migrant workers and undocumented people, such laws barely exist, as was the case when a scaffold collapsed at a Toronto construction site on Christmas Eve two years ago, killing four men and seriously injuring a fifth. Elsewhere in the world - where most of the goods we buy are produced - such laws are still a revolution away. Below, I'm posting a short film about the Triangle Fire that makes one such connection.

A couple of years back, I read an excellent book about the Triangle fire, which I highly recommend to readers with an interest in social history: Triangle: The Fire That Changed America by David Von Drehle.
It is without a doubt one of the best social histories I've read.

The Triangle factory fire was a microcosm through which to see an entire era, and Von Drehle is an expert at teasing out the many threads that comprise it: labour, urban immigrant life, the progressive movement, the women's movement, machine city government, corruption, reformers. He brings you mini-histories of each, always enough to imbue context, but never so much that you drown in information. This must be incredibly difficult to do, as any one of those topics is very complex, easily supporting the many volumes of books and hours of documentaries made about them.

. . . In this way, through lively, extremely readable digressions, Von Drehle sketches the background each theme. He includes wonderful mini-biographies of the workers, bosses, organizers, politicians, lawyers, and reformers who comprise the Triangle story.

This is a worn cliche to use about a history, but it's the best way to express it: the whole era comes alive.
In some of the media attention to the anniversary of the fire, there has been recognition of the role of one particular activist in that labour struggle: Clara Lemlich. Jim Dwyer, one of my favourite New York writers, has a very good column about Lemlich here, and there's an excellent piece on the AFL-CIO website: "The Uprising of 20,000 and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire". (The Von Drehle book is referenced as a source.)

Lemlich was a fighter to her dying day, and she richly deserves this recognition, but the AFL-CIO page makes it clear: one person does not create change for workers. Only the people, united - only a movement - creates change. In the US, find out what you can do to support the workers' movement unfolding in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and other states, by building support for the national labour event taking place on April 4: We Are One. In Canada, the best thing you can do right now to support working people is to help get rid of the Harper government.

Thanks to David H for the short doc, and to Amy for Dwyer's column, and for our ongoing conversation that reminded me of the terrific book.

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