The last in-person event held at the Fashion Institute of Technology before the pandemic shut down the country last March was a memorial tribute for victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, hosted by United College Employees.
Last year, 146 people wearing shirtwaists and banners — made at FIT — sat on the stage during the program to represent each of the individuals who needlessly died in the 1911 fire.
Most of the 146 garment workers – 123 women and girls and 23 men — were immigrants. They died by falling from a fire escape that collapsed; from being locked in the burning building by routine management procedures; or from jumping to their deaths from the windows of the iron and steel building. Some of those who died were as young as 14.
Tonight’s event will include a new video depicting images of the victims, some created by descendants. Labor leaders will read the names of the deceased. The program will be simulcast in Chinese, Spanish and Italian and will include a sign language interpreter.
The anniversary coincides with the long-awaited release of $1.5 million from the state Dormitory Authority to help fund a memorial to be constructed at the former factory, now part of the New York University campus. The memorial at the Asch Building will be a steel ribbon winding around the building on two levels with the letters of the victims’ names cut out. When the sun shines through the cutouts, the names will appear on the lower panel.
While more fundraising is needed to ensure maintenance of the memorial, the Authority funds are significant.
“We just signed a contract. It’s terrific,” said Dan Levinson Wilk, an FIT history professor and member of the UCE who is also a board member of the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition.
UCE donated $5,000 to sponsor a first prize award for the winning memorial artists: Richard Joon Yoo and Uri Wegman.
“UCE does something every year,” said the local higher education union President Roberta Elins. UCE members attend the annual memorial event in Washington Park, and typically chalk the names of the fire victims on campus.
“It’s very important to us, especially in the UCE, to maintain that connection,” Levinson Wilk said. He noted that the UCE is a garment-industry union, where members teach courses in fashion design, sewing, fabric, fashion buying, draping, apparel and millinery.
There are also union connections. Levinson Wilk said that some groups of female workers on different floors on the factory had successfully gone on strike for a five-and-a-half-day work week. The workers on the top floor did not get that concession, and thus they were at work that Saturday afternoon when the fire broke out.
Health and safety advocacy and protections are key issues for unions. The Triangle fire helped lead to job-safety laws such as forbidding smoking in factories, requiring illuminated exit signs and sprinkler systems, and doors that open outward to prevent trampling in an emergency. Sweatshops still exist in the United States and around the world, and violations still occur that endanger workers’ lives. Union action and enforcement can save lives.
UCE members helped with two large-scale events held at FIT in 2019 to assist with the creation of the memorial. Levinson Wilk said neighbors of the NYU building where the memorial steel ribbon will be erected were concerned about sun glare from the ribbon. To mitigate the glare, organizers decided to use swatches of fabric that would be sewn together and then scanned and cast in metal. Hundreds of people came together for the sewing events, during which there were readings by novelists, poets and historians, as well as a performance by the New York Philharmonic choir singing “Fire in My Mouth,” an oratorio that commemorates the tragedy.
“People brought swatches of fabric that were meaningful to them,” Levinson Wilk said. UCE members joined descendants of fire victims, along with allies from other organizations.
NYSUT members can support fundraising efforts for the memorial through the purchase of goods from the NYSUT Women’s Committee.
To learn more about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, visit the website of the ILR School at Cornell University.
Additional classroom resources are available here at nysut.org.