March 23, 2018

Bound by garment industry, United College Employees remember Triangle fire victims

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT Communications
triangle shirtwaist fire
Caption: Members of the United College Employees of FIT march in remembrance of the 146 people who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Photos provided.

The faculty members of the Fashion Institute of Technology know they are forever intertwined with the 146 people who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. They are bonded by the garment industry, by their geography, and by a union pledge to help the world remember these people died while working for a sweatshop that did not care about their safety.

The anniversary of the fire is March 25, 1911, and each year the United College Employees of FIT mark the event by chalking the names of those who died on the sidewalks of their New York campus. This year, because of construction at the college, they will use social media. Students, meanwhile, made shirtwaist placards to honor victims and commemorate the event.

The workers who toiled in the overcrowded factory — most of whom were immigrants — died by falling from a fire escape that collapsed; from being locked in the burning building by routine management procedures; or jumping to their deaths from the windows of the iron and steel building. Some of those who died were as young as 14.

“Many of the faculty and staff who work at FIT have grandparents who worked in the garment industry,” said Roberta Elins, president of the 1,700-member United College Employees.

Today, some of those faculty teach courses in fashion design, sewing, fabric, fashion buying, draping techniques, apparel and millinery, just to name a few.

“We are a garment-industry union,” said Daniel Levinson Wilk, an FIT American History teacher and board member of the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition. Teaching about the fire is part of his curriculum.

The coalition marked the 100th anniversary of the fire by announcing the winners of an international design competition for a monument to honor the victims, and the UCE donated $5,000 for that first prize. Artists from 30 countries submitted designs, and the contest was won by Richard Joon Yoo and Uri Wegman.

Each year since, the union has donated the same amount toward fundraising for the creation of the memorial at the Asch Building, where the factory was located on the upper floors. It is between Washington Square East and Greene Street in Greenwich Village.

“We’re very much supporting that you shouldn’t walk by this building without knowing what happened there and remembering lives lost,” said Elins. “This was a tragedy that never had to happen.”

The memorial that will mark the building will be vertical, ribbon-like metallic, and will include reflective panels engraved with the names of the victims, along with testimonies from witnesses and those who survived, explained Wilk.

Although New York State has pledged funding, Wilk said it has been difficult to access, and money needs to be raised to ensure the monument is maintained in perpetuity.

The deadly fire triggered the passage of numerous job-safety laws, including no smoking allowed in factories, and requirements for illuminated exit signs, sprinkler systems, and doors that open outward so people don’t trample each other, according to Wilk.

“Laws are meaningless if not enforced, and unions help make sure they get enforced,” said Wilk.

FIT faculty member Ellen Lynch heads the UCE’s environmental health and safety committee to help ensure safety for the employees. She was inspired to learn more about this kind of activism after hearing one of Wilk’s talks about the Triangle fire during a union week.

“It’s so important that things like this never happen again,” said Lynch.

FIT now has a college-wide Environment, Health and Safety committee, which meets monthly. Progress includes installing locks on classroom doors and installing working phones in every classroom. Phones also have been placed in the halls on campus to provide callers immediate access to public safety to report emergencies or situations, and response times for incidents have now improved.

And after much pushing, according to Lynch, the campus now conducts drills.

“At the last (NYSUT) health and safety conference, I signed up for a session on active shooters. I realized we (FIT) were in the minority. We had nothing in place, no drills,” Lynch said, adding that she contacted NYSUT Health and Safety Specialist Wendy Hord — whom Lynch called a “wealth of knowledge” — to get help with information about instituting drills and remedying mold and leak problems.

After the Triangle Fire, it became clear the role strong unions could play in ensuring the prevention of similar tragedies.

“Workers flocked to union quarters to offer testimonies, support mobilization, and demand that Triangle owners (Isaac) Harris and (Max) Blanck be brought to trial,” according to the ILR School at Cornell University. “Workers organized in powerful unions would be more conscious of their rights and better able to obtain safe working conditions.”

The business owners, although indicted for manslaughter by a grand jury, were then acquitted by a jury at trial. They later settled 23 civil suits by paying $75 per life lost.

Still, the plight of the Triangle factory workers is not so far removed from working conditions that exist even today. Factory fires in Bangladesh have killed many workers, and the U.S. has many problems with sweatshops.

Meanwhile, recent studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor found that 67 percent of Los Angeles garment factories and 63 percent of New York garment factories violate minimum wage and overtime laws. And 98 percent of Los Angeles garment factories have workplace health and safety problems serious enough to lead to severe injuries or death.

“Sweatshops have not disappeared in the United States,” notes Cornell’s ILR School. “They keep attracting workers in desperate need of employment and undocumented immigrants, who may be anxious to avoid involvement with governmental agencies.”