By Anonymous (not verified) on March 25, 2011

One hundred years ago, on March 25, 1911, 146 mostly young immigrant women lost their lives in a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. That fire changed the attitudes of the American public and the policies of the government. Out of that fire would come a series of reforms that we now take for granted: fire safety, building codes, factory and health codes. But still today our workplaces are not safe enough.

The fire consumed the top three floors of the building that Triangle occupied, in Greenwich Village, N.Y. Workers on the ninth floor were trapped. The doors were locked. Large canisters of oil were exploding in the stairwells, and several tons of uncut cloth were ablaze. Workers went to the windows, but the fire ladders didn’t reach them. Firemen pulled out nets to catch the women as they jumped, but they crashed through to their death.

Many people considered the fire an accident and a regrettable fact of industrial life. They looked to charities to tend to the families of the victims.

But Rabbi Stephen Wise and labor leader Rose Schneiderman rejected this notion.

As Wise said, “It is not the act of God but the inaction of man that is responsible.” Schneiderman, in an impassioned speech at the Metropolitan Opera, pointed her finger at the assembled “best people” of New York and told them: “I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. … Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.”

The fire united workers and reformers. Frances Perkins, then a young social worker, came to the conclusion that safeguarding labor conditions was rightfully a state function. Together with the garment workers union and reform groups, she persuaded Tammany Hall to take up labor reform.

Al Smith and Robert Wagner, then leaders of the state legislature, created the Factory Investigating Committee, which they co-chaired. They rewrote New York’s labor, building, safety and industrial code, making the state a model that others soon emulated.

Perkins would become chief investigator of the committee and then commissioner of labor for New York state and secretary of labor for President FDR. The New Deal, she recalled later, “was based really upon the experiences that we had had in New York state and upon the sacrifices of those who, we faithfully remember with affection and respect, died in that terrible fire. They did not die in vain and we will never forget them.”

And so we remember them today.

But we also need to remember that hazardous working conditions remain a serious problem. More than 5,000 workers die on the job in the United States every year.

We cannot continue to turn our backs on them, even though they are not leaping out of windows en masse to their deaths.

On this day, 100 years after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, let us pledge to make our workplaces safe, once and for all.

Richard Greenwald, professor of history and dean of the graduate school at Drew University in Madison, N.J., is the author of “The Triangle Fire, The Protocols of Piece and the Making of Industrial Democracy in Progressive Era New York.” He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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