The forgotten lessons of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire

On the centennial of the landmark workplace tragedy, The Nation's Joshua Freeman looks back on the reform it inspired... and how those changes have since unraveled

Family members identify the victims of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire.
(Image credit: Corbis)

Friday marks the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, a tragedy that killed 146 garment workers, many of them young, immigrant women. Some even leapt to their deaths rather than burn alive in the factory they were trapped in (the exit door was locked). The fire incited nationwide debate on workplace safety and labor laws, and, eventually, spurred reform. In The Nation, Joshua Freeman laments that progressive attitudes shaped by the Triangle tragedy have since receded. "The unionization and reform that followed Triangle provides a feel-good element to an otherwise bleak story and accounts for some of its telling and retelling," he says. "Yet the triumphs — as remarkable as they were — proved limited in scope and durability." Here, an excerpt:

Today, the labor movement and progressives fight one dispiriting battle after another to defend wages, benefits, social programs and government protections from further dismemberment. Even the thrilling mobilization of labor and its allies in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana has remained, so far, defensive — necessary, but not enough even to win incremental advances. We live in a society that simply does not function for an ever-growing part of the population. It is too late to rally around restoring the status quo ante, an impossible and not particularly attractive ideal. Rather, like the social forces fused together by the flames at Triangle, we need to imagine a new way of being, a new set of customs and laws designed for our world of commoditization, financialization and globalization, which has brought so much wealth and so much misery — some new combination of regulation and self-organization. Only by recapturing the spirit of the reformers of a century ago, that the world belongs to us, to make right as we see fit, can we achieve even modest improvements in our daily reality.

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