American Experience: Triangle Fire

“The shops are unsanitary — that’s the word that is generally used, but there ought to be a worse one used. Whenever we tear or damage any of the goods we sew on, or whenever it is found damaged after we are through with it, whether we have done it or not, we are charged for the piece and sometimes for a whole yard of the material. At the beginning of every slow season, $2 is deducted from our salaries. We have never been able to find out what this is for.”

When Clara Lemlich published her essay in the New York Evening Journal in November 1909, it helped to spark a shirtwaist workers strike, at the time, the largest walkout in U.S. history. Some 20,000 women picketed for improved and safer working conditions, better hours, and higher wages. The strike, which lasted about two months, had effects: the National Women’s Trade Union League of America (NWTUL) settled with the owners of some 500 factories in New York City. Many allowed unions into their shops.

Not so Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, owners of the prosperous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. As recounted in Triangle Fire, the latest program in PBS’ American Experience series, Blanck and Harris saw unions — the very idea of unions — as a particular sort of attack on them. Immigrants themselves, they were typical of the era’s industrialists, who, says historian Robyn Muncy, “saw themselves as fairly benevolent, as providers of jobs.” As she speaks, you see one mustachioed white man after another, each portrait framed in gold: “If workers complained about their wages or complained about their hours or the conditions under which they worked, they were biting the hand that fed them.”

Pitting workers against owners, this formulation, much like similar formulations today, painted unions as detrimental to profits, and more broadly, to American ideals. As Muncy puts it, Blanck and Harris “saw their wealth, their power, as a perfectly legitimate reward for their exercise of individual freedom and that that was the best thing for American society, that was the best thing for the American economy.”

While the program gives voice to such beliefs, narrated by historians setting the stage for Triangle Fire, it clearly comes down on the side of the shirtwaist factory workers, and more specifically, those who suffered in the Triangle Factory. These workers’ lives — and deaths in the fire on 25 March 1911 — were shaped by deliberate mistreatment and willful ignorance on the part of the owners. Historian Steve Fraser insists that the working conditions were deplorable, even apart from safety concerns. With improved technology — electric sewing machines as opposed to pedal pump machines — operators were expected to increase the pace of production. “They were subject to the rhythms of the machine,” Fraser says, “Slave of that machine and the pace at which it works.” Reenactments show close-ups of girls struggling at their work stations, while voice-over actors read from journals or letters: “Sometimes in my haste,” one woman says, “I get my finger caught and the needle would go right through. I’d bind my finger and keep going.”

The conditions in the Asch Building were made all the more frustrating as workers could look across Washington Square Park or Broadway to see fine homes and department stores catering to ladies with expensive tastes, like Wanamaker’s. Meantime, another actor reads another rumination: “I used to creep up on the roof of the tenement and talk out my heart to the stars and the sky. Why were we crammed into the crowded darkness? Why were we wasting with want? It was America.”

The why, of course, had to do with ensuring that those with money were able to consolidate and hang onto it. Thomas Bender notes that it was an era of “extravagant conspicuous consumption,” that the gap between classes seemed to be widening. Indeed, Lemlich imagined her working conditions, and especially the verbal and other abuses by managers, to be like those of “Negro slaves were in the South.”

The Triangle Fire serves here as dramatic climax for the program’s narrative of the garment workers’ righteous rage and despair. Photos of the tragedy reveal that women’s bodies — 146 of them — were literally stacked on the sidewalk. Many were burned beyond recognition, others crumpled and broken because the workers had jumped from windows and down the elevator shaft to escape the flames: “Down came the bodies in a shower, smoking, burning bodies.”

In their deaths, narrator Michael Murphy observes, many of the workers were no longer anonymous. And as he names them, the camera passes over photos of young immigrant women (the youngest victim was 14 years old), their faces haunting reminders of the costs of such workplace conditions. Bender says, “People were realizing that they had tolerated a kind of set of employment and other industrial practices that they should never have tolerated. You can’t have unregulated practices.” Unless you can.

RATING 5 / 10