Remembering the Fire at Triangle Shirtwaist
Roberto in Milwaukee sizes me up, then sidles over
sideways, like a crab, asks if I’ve
heard about the woman ironworker from Kenosha.
It’s no riddle. I read his eyes, pray he’ll go mute.
There are two versions to the story,
he says, placing the bait. I bite, he tells.
She was an apprentice, had two kids, fell from the steel
and died. They say it shows women can’t
handle the business, but
guys fall, too. He waits.
I ask for the other version, the one I see
itching at the soft flesh beneath his shell:
She asked for a safety harness,
foreman said she didn’t need one.
And Seattle, the buzz about the new linewomen? Eager
to impress means easy
to fatigue. Send her up and down, up and down, up
down up the pole. Soon her arms
unbuckle her belt, let her test her wings.
When Labor, at century’s start,
bronzed those bales of flaming shirtwaist girls
out the ninth floor windows of Asch ––
was that not a covenant
that the sky would stop
© Susan Eisenberg, 2006
On March 25, 1911, 146 garment workers, mostly women and girls, died in a fire at the non-union Triangle Shirtwaist Company located in the Asch Building on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Because one stairway was in flames, the other exit door locked, and the fire escape collapsed when used, many workers jumped from the ninth floor to their deaths. The ILGWU was already fighting for safer conditions in sweatshops, most famously in the Uprising of the 20,000. Triangle workers had won concessions through that organizing, but not the right to be a union shop. While the shocking deaths at Triangle led to changes in building codes and labor legislation in New York, implementation and enforcement were lax. Sound familiar?
For more on this important labor history, Brigid O’Farrell recommends Cornell University’s Kheel Center website, updated for the 100th anniversary: http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire/