The Triangle Factory Fire...and Let's Not Forget Bangladesh

Hope springs eternal in the human breast: Man never is, but always to be blest.

--Alexander Pope, "An Essay on Man" [1733-1734]

This project has made me think--some might say way too much--about the origination of the food I eat, the electronic devices I use, the clothing I wear. And I keep saying how odd it feels to be on such a solitary journey. Look at me, crazy lady that I've become, checking {Made in USA} tags on Bills Khakis at a high-end men's specialty shop. Look at the meticulously dressed (sport coat, tie, pressed slacks) sales associate watching me, my hair rain-soaked, as I jot information down in my tiny red notebook. I want to say, "Hey, just a blogger here. No worries." I move past the Bills Khakis and check other clothing in the marble-floored store. Jeans, silk shirts, golf apparel. All beautifully displayed--neckties fan out in a circular pattern on a dark walnut pedestal table--all {Made Anywhere But Here}. Is it too early in this post to sigh on the page?

As workers toil away offshore under dubious conditions making jeans and golf shirts and other goodies for American corporations and their customers, I have to wonder if we're getting anywhere. If we buy goods--inexpensive or not--made {Over There} are we, by association, guilty? Have we simply moved the manufacturing horrors to unseen locations, safe from pesky American workplace rules and regulations? You know those three monkeys, hands slapped over their eyes, ears, and mouth? Are we like them?

Yesterday in New York City, various labor advocacy groups gathered to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Until a couple of weeks ago I knew nothing about that horrific event. Or so I thought. My daughter Carolyn, a social studies teacher and graduate school history student, says I must've learned about the Triangle Fire when I was a kid. "It's in all the textbooks," she said. "It led to the post-industrial progressive labor movement. But the unions, when you think about it, didn't really make significant headway until about the '40s and '50s." Sure, I had to know that. But I didn't. Plus, I have to admit (because it's Lent and I can't lie) the two-word phrase "union activists" makes me cringe. My knee-jerk reaction is: Oh no. What do they want now?

But as I sort out my union prejudices, Dad again emerges to guide me. An active participant in his cameraman's local union, Dad advocated for better working conditions for himself and his crews. Two issues propelled him: long hours and runaway production. More than once, driving home after an overly-long shoot, Dad had--just for a second or two--fallen asleep at the wheel. He repeatedly heard frightening stories about this same thing happening to his crew. No one dared complain or he'd lose his job. "It ain't right," Dad would say. He'd hear about yet another Hollywood studio choosing less expensive, non-union directors of photography. Or he'd hear about studios moving an entire production offshore. The situation has only worsened. Below-the-line crew members, as they're known in Hollywood, need union advocates in their corner. So, with Dad {and his hardworking crews} in mind, I read about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.

Near closing time on March 25, 1911--on a quiet Saturday afternoon in early spring--a fire broke out in a scrap bin under a cutter's table on the eighth floor of the Asch Building in the Triangle Waist Company in New York City's Greenwich Village. Some say it was a cigarette butt or stray match that caused the fire, others point to the sewing machine engines. Whatever the cause, 18 minutes later 146 workers were dead. Once the fire broke out, according to interviews with survivors, workers were trapped. Overseers kept the doors locked to prevent theft. "What are we gonna do, steal a shirtwaist?" worker-survivor Pauline Cuoio Pepe asked. "Who the heck wanted a shirtwaist?"

At least 62 workers jumped from the high rise building's windows to their deaths on the concrete below.

"I saw the people throwing themselves out the window," Pepe said. "We were about a hundred people. We were hollering and crying. 'Open the door!'…When I got down, the three flights were blazing. The firemen came up and helped us, but we were tumbling down terrible. We were shivering and crying and holding on…the firemen told us to wait because those young people were still jumping…went right through the glass in the pavement, some of them. There was a big hole there…We were all torn to pieces…"

According to Cornell University's Industrial and Labor Relations website, "Many of the Triangle factory workers were women, some as young as 14 years old. They were, for the most part, recent Italian and European Jewish immigrants who had come to the United States with their families to seek a better life. Instead, they faced lives of grinding poverty and horrifying working conditions."

The Triangle Fire strengthened the union movement in this country. Americans saw first-hand how the powerless could be abused at the hands of the powerful. Once the people sided with the workers, Washington couldn't turn a blind eye. Reforms followed. And while some would say we are far from perfect in this country (underpaid illegals are still used in many big city American factories, for example), at least here we can monitor labor problems and perhaps do something about them. But when American companies manufacture offshore--despite their best efforts to try to monitor the siuation--abuses thrive. They continue even after tragedy strikes.

Reading about the Triangle Fire, I couldn't help but recall the 13 Foxconn workers in Shenzhen, China, so despondent they jumped from their dormitory windows. And check out the National Labor Committee website. It painstakingly compares the Triangle Fire to current factory worker conditions in Savar, Bangladesh. On December 14, 2010, at the Hameem factory, 29 workers died in a fire. Here, too, the doors were locked, the workers trapped. Read all the way down and you'll find this: "According to worker estimates...GAP accounted for 50 percent of total factory production. A knowledgeable source told us that 400,000 pairs of GAP's children's denim shorts were burned in the fire. GAP has also been sourcing production at Hameem for well over a decade. J.C.Penney and Phillips-Van Heusen accounted for most of the remaining production. But, workers also mentioned sewing garments for Target, VF Corporation, and Abercrombie and Fitch. Only the U.S. apparel companies can inform the American people regarding how much production they had at the Hameem Factory."

Is it ok to sigh now? Good. Sigh.

At the beginning of this post, I whined about my "solitary journey." But that's no longer really true, is it? Remarkably, each day I receive emails from readers all over this country and beyond. Usually a missive will arrive just as I'm about ready to throw in the {Made in Turkey / Restoration Hardware} towel. Thanks so much to everyone, wherever you are. Thanks, as well, for your suggestions. I shall keep plugging away. Yes, we can each make a difference. Yes, hope does spring eternal.

PLEASE NOTE: Tonight, March 26, 2011, CNN will run the HBO documentary "Triangle: Remembering the Fire." 8:00 p.m. Pacific, 11:00 p.m. Eastern. Set your DVRs. Let me know what you think.