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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Let Us Not Forget: The Triangle Fire of 1911 and Bangladesh

For a couple of days, the story made the headlines: In the teeming city of Dhaka, Bangladesh, 112 factory workers – most of them young women – died because of a fire in a garment factory. With flames licking at their backs, some jumped to their death; others burned to ashes behind locked doors.

Almost exactly the same thing happened here, almost exactly one hundred years ago. On March 25, 1911, 146 people died in what became known as the Triangle Fire.

Triangle was a New York City garment factory known for shabby treatment of its predominantly female work force. In 1909, when most Manhattan garment workers went out on strike, its management was one of relatively few that refused to negotiate. The alliance of striking women and their upper-class supporters, who refused to buy new clothes until conditions improved, won their strike and the United Ladies’ Garment Workers Union began.

But Triangle remained stubborn, and two years later, its workers were almost entirely from two ethnic groups: Italian women so accustomed to authoritarianism that they did not participate in the strike; or recently arrived Jews who were sufficiently desperate for money that they worked on their Sabbath in a nonunion shop.

The tragedy began late on a Saturday afternoon when one of the few male employees apparently dropped a match near machine-oil cans. Flammable fabric quickly spread the fire, and women desperately crowded the windows of the factory, seeking escape. But the factory was on the eighth and ninth floors, and fire department ladders stopped two stories short.

Some jumped, but survivors testified that many women were pushed out of the windows by those behind them. “It was jump or be burned,” said a New York Times reporter, as “a heap of corpses lay on the sidewalk.” Over fifty bodies were found piled behind locked doors. Families gathered at the city morgue, where they tried to determine which of the charred remains had been their loved one, which of the broken bodies that hit the sidewalk was theirs.

Immediately after the fire, owners Harris and Blanck rushed to deny that the doors were locked -- even before the charge was made. Fire regulations in New York were sufficiency advanced that they prohibited locking in employees, but many managers routinely ignored this and other safety rules. Two doors were intact after the fire, and they were locked. The practice was routine, and still is in Bangladesh. Locking in employees prevents anyone from sneaking away from work and – probably of greater concern – keeps union organizers out.

New York’s labor leaders did not expect these immigrant women to be brave enough to challenge the owners, so they published a list of persons to whom information could be secretly given. The district attorney, according to the Times, soon had sufficient facts to “show that the doors had been kept locked.”

The public initially was outraged, but the fire was in March and the trial of the owners was not until December. Only men served on juries then, and blue-collar men rarely were included on juror lists. After two hours of debate, they issued an acquittal. “I think,” said one, “that the girls, who undoubtedly have not as much intelligence as others might have in other walks of life, were inclined to fly into a panic.”

Thus the deaths of 146 people went unavenged. “Most of them,” reported the Times, “could barely speak English…Almost all were the main support of their hard-working families.” Many had emigrated alone and had no family here -- something that was clear when recognizable bodies at the morgue went unclaimed. Quite probably their families were in Europe and long would be unaware of the horror that had befallen their daughters.

Within a few days of the fire, Harris and Blanck shamelessly ran an advertisement for their new location. For them, it was business as usual. But others led a departure from the old ways, and a factory safety committee soon received over a thousand reports of dangerous conditions similar to those at Triangle. Eventually standards were upgraded and laws enforced.

Now, a century later, we need the same in Bangladesh and other Third World countries. Oddly enough, the 2012 fire also was on a Saturday and also was an eight-floor factory. According to the Associated Press, survivors of the blaze “said an exit door was locked, fire extinguishers didn’t work and apparently were there just to impress inspectors…. When the fire alarm went off, bosses told the workers to return to their sewing machines. Victims were trapped or jumped to their death from the eight-story building, which had no emergency exits.”

Labels were found for clothing that said “Disney” and “Sears” -- but like Harris and Blanck a century ago, some American businesses immediately claimed no responsibility: “They thought they had stopped doing business with the place,” said another AP article. Wal-Mart, the world’s biggest retailer, at least had the grace not to offer fuzzy-headed recollections of whether or not they bought garments from the callous company. Its press release said, “Today, we have terminated the relationship with that supplier.”

Who knows, though, what supplier will get the next contract? It is past time for us to underscore the international in International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union. It is past time for us to look for the union label when we buy clothes. It also is past time to insist that the United Nations empower its International Labor Organization. Let’s not let another century pass by without reasonable protections for those whose work adorns us.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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