Remembering the Triangle Fire 100 Years Later

03/25/2011 03:45 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I grew up in the garment industry. For most of my childhood, my father was a clothing salesman and later, had a small manufacturing business too. He started his career at Macy's in NYC, later working for Wrangler, Levi, Summit Sportswear and finally, opening his own business, The Grater Group, where he represented many different lines of clothing.

It was a hard life for my dad, and for us, as he travelled, gone Monday to Friday most weeks, covering territory, when we moved to California in 1980, including the entire states of California, Nevada and Arizona. I have vivid memories of shlepping garment bags, setting up rolling racks, calling on stores in the middle of nowhere, watching as my dad showed his line, making jokes, entertaining the buyers, hoping to walk away with that magical moment: an order! We went with him, and later my mom, to the Merchandise Mart in downtown LA on weekends, during shows, where my sister and I roamed the halls of the mart, looking at all the people and different items of clothing, accessories, shoes, bags, etc being sold and bought.

Later, when my dad tried his hand at production, I remember going to the cavernous warehouses, seeing the shirts and sweatshirts being made, mostly by Mexican workers. I wondered what their lives were like. It was such a different atmosphere than the suave and plush halls of the mart. Yet, that is where all of the things being sold at the mart were being made: in shops and halls, here in America and around the world, mostly by poor immigrants who didn't speak English.

Little did I know as a kid that there was a long history of this in the garment industry. I had never heard of the Triangle fire, of sweatshops, of unions or injustice. I have now though. So tonight, we travel back to a different time, a different place, in order to remember, to learn, to honor and to hopefully take away some lessons for us today and tomorrow. For make no mistake, some of the things we are witnessing today in our country, especially regarding unions and regulations, are part of the ongoing, smoky remnants of that tragedy in Lower Manhattan.

On Saturday, March 25, 1911, at 4:45 p.m., near quitting time, a fire broke out on the Triangle Waist Company building's eighth and ninth floors. Factory foremen had locked the exit doors to keep union organizers out and keep workers from taking breaks and stealing scraps of fabric. Other doors only opened inward and were blocked by the stampede of workers struggling to escape. The ladders of the city's fire engines could not reach high enough to save the employees.

As a result, workers burned or jumped to their deaths. Experts later concluded that the fire likely was caused by a cigarette dropped on a pile of "cut-aways," or scraps of cloths, that had been accumulating for almost three months. 146 garment workers, mostly Italian and Jewish immigrant girls in their teens and 20s, died.

Out of that cauldron of misery and protest emerged a diverse progressive movement composed of unlikely allies. It included immigrants, unionists, muckraking journalists, clergy, middle-class reformers like Frances Perkins (then a Consumers League activist who would become Franklin D. Roosevelt's trailblazing secretary of labor), socialists and socialites, including Anne Morgan (daughter of Wall Street chieftain J.P. Morgan). 

On April 6, 30,000 New Yorkers marched -- and hundreds of thousands more lined the march's route -- to memorialize the fire's victims. Numerous rallies and editorials called for reforms -- not only for fire safety codes but also workplace safety standards, child labor standards, shorter work hours, minimum wages and limits in home work.  Within days of the fire, groups organized mass meetings to demand reform. Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, one of the featured speakers at a rally at the Metropolitan Opera House, did not mince words.

"It is not the action of God but the inaction of man that is responsible," he thundered. "The disaster was not the deed of God (a natural disaster) but the greed of man (systematic)." Wise did not seek charity.  He demanded justice.

"We have laws that in a crisis we find are no laws, and we have enforcement that, when the hour of trial comes, we find is no enforcement. Let us lift up the industrial standards until they will bear inspection. And when we go before the legislatures, let us not allow them to put us off forever with the old answer, 'We have no money.' If we have no money for necessary enforcement of laws which safeguard the lives of workers, it is because so much of our money is wasted and squandered and stolen." (Excerpts from Peter Dreier and Donald Cohen's article.)

I am moved by the courage and tenacity of Rabbi Wise, who, long before Rabbi Heschel, was speaking out and standing on the side of justice and righteousness in America. And our Torah is clear that workers rights must not be denied, declaring in Deuteronomy 24:14-15, "You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it."

Thousands of years ago, our tradition laid down standards for treating one another, both personally and in business, and this is something the Jewish people can be proud of immensely. It is why we have been part of struggles for justice and righteousness in every generation, and the Triangle Fire era was no different. For while the owners of the Triangle Shirt Co were also Jews, and anti-union, the leaders of the unions, clergy like Rabbi Wise, activists like Rose Schneiderman and Louis Brandeis, a leading Boston lawyer, before he became a Supreme Court Justice, were Jews and all active in this fight for the rights of the workers. They were fighting for better pay, standardized working hours, decent working conditions, fair treatment and what the Torah called for generations ago, not being abused on the job by bosses who felt their workers were slaves, not employees. Jews have never been afraid to stand up for the rights of workers, even if it meant having to stand up against other Jews.

There are many, many articles, events, commemorations and witnesses to this horrible tragedy in our history, and I encourage you to read about them, discuss them and learn. I am grateful to Peter Dreier for educating me about this sad yet transformative tragedy in our history several months ago, and to the Progressive Jewish Alliance for their participation in helping us prepare for this important anniversary. This Shabbat I join many, many colleagues around the country who are preaching about the Triangle Fire, a moment that helped shaped what was to come with FDR and the New Deal. I want to share a few thoughts about what we can learn from the fire for today's struggles.

While I don't want to get into too many specifics, I do think that there are some parallel lessons on the overall message that unions and regulations are not necessary today. From the financial collapse of 2008 to attacks on labor and American workers today in Wisconsin and other states, we are again battling those who say "no regulation, no collective bargaining, no workers' rights." The Triangle Fire happened, in many ways, because the company refused to abide by the voluntary regulations placed on garment factories. For several years prior to the fire, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) had tried unsuccessfully to implement regulations at Triangle. Businesses and investors told the government that too many regulations will be bad for the economy, bad for investments and will hamper business.

Sound familiar? Today, coal miners have died in the hundreds because companies refuse to enforce safety regulations. The BP oil disaster came after the company repeatedly ignored calls for improved safety regulations and improvements for the workers on board. In sweatshops around the world, like the one in Bangladesh, where 29 workers died last December because they were locked into a building that caught fire, human beings are treated like animals as they toil to make the shirts, jeans and shoes most of us in America enjoy. We think that these kinds of situations don't exist here in America, but, sadly, they do. We can choose to ignore them or we can choose to educate ourselves, speak out, buy responsibly, invest responsibly and be a part of the solution.

My friend and colleague Rabbi Jill Jacobs, one of the leading voices for Jewish justice in America today, writes in a recent piece about the Triangle Fire and lessons for today:

Now, 100 years later, public workers in Wisconsin and around the country are standing up to the largest-scale attack on American workers in recent history. Using the economic crisis as a pretext, and with financing from billionaire businessmen, Governor Scott Walker and others are trying to strip public unions of their collective bargaining power.

I grew up seeing the hard work, sweat, toil and pain that it took for my dad to get clothing from the rack to the store, and he was by no means an exploited worker. Yet, in his small way, he educated me to the great challenges of the garment industry. And today, in my small way, I am trying to honor his legacy, and the legacy of workers who came before him, by standing shoulder to shoulder with those who make our country great. The teachers, firefighters, police officers, public utility workers, nurses, as well as the garment workers, autoworkers, hotel workers, car wash workers, grocery workers, and all others who do the labor of this nation, with love, devotion and lifelong commitment. We owe it to them, as we owed it to the young girls who jumped to their deaths from the Triangle Fire, to raise our voice, as the Torah calls, for fairness, equity, justice and righteousness for all workers.