Today marks the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, a blaze that killed 146 New York garment workers, most of them young immigrant women, and is credited with sparking the modern labor movement. Workers were trapped in the building, unable to escape to the stairwells because doors were locked. A fire escape collapsed. Desperate, many of them jumped, falling several stories to their deaths.
The fire was not only New York's biggest workplace disaster of its time, but the greatest tragedy to hit the city's communities of then-recent arrivals from Europe. Most of the workers were Italian and Eastern European Jewish immigrants, the vast majority women, many with families. They put in long hours and scraped by with meager wages, much like immigrant garment workers today.
This morning I came across a list of the victims, some with notes next to their names like "identified by gold-capped tooth" and "attractive woman who died with folded arms." What was most striking was the last names of the dead: Aberstein, Ardito, Astrowsky, Bellotta, Benanti, Bernstein, Binevitz, Caruso, Cohen, Costello.
By now, some of these names have become relatively common in the United States. At the time, they were utterly foreign.
A hundred years later, our clothes are still made by people with foreign names, whether made in the garment district of downtown Los Angeles or an ocean away. Much of the industry has been outsourced to sweatshops abroad, where conditions are no better and the dangers the same as workers faced a hundred years ago in New York, as evidenced by a recent deadly garment factory fire in Dhaka, Bangladesh that was eerily reminiscent of the Triangle tragedy.
In New York, sidewalk chalk memorials in now-pricey neighborhoods spring up at this time each year to commemorate victims of the Triangle fire, women with names like Wisotsky, Eisenberg, Maltese and Oberstein. Much has changed, and little.