Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire: March 25, 1911

Many of the images in this above photo-documentary could very well be of workers in Fall River or any other of the great textile cities of the Northeastern United States. This guy has a great take on it.

I can still remember the smell of a burning factory -- long shut down -- and the stories of old-timers who remembered the days of children who swabbed the factory floor with oil to keep the cotton dust down and out of the machinated looms. Imagine being told by one of those old-timers: "We all left the room in case of a fire, and they slam these big metal doors. They don't open 'em 'til it burns itself all out. Sometimes one of the kids wouldn't get out. The rest of the mill would keep right on spinning or weaving or whatever. Salvage what equipment they could, get back making in that shop in a week."
The old-timer who shared that insight with me was actually repeating what he had heard from a representative of the generation before him, because he had obviously worked after the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. Maybe everyone tells the "walking uphill both ways in the snow" stories to toughen up the new kids.
As late as twenty or twenty-five years ago, there were still shifts assembling sweaters or embroidering belts. I often chuckled over "the Reagan Eighties"with the owners of a childrens' clothing manufactury. They didn't chuckle, however, at "union talk." They considered it not only un-American, but also, frankly, very passé, part of the olden days they were trying both to avoid and to deny. The only people who sought out union shops for their brochures were Democrats who were running for something. Plus: you got breaks, you got lunch, you got bonuses, you got sick days. "The only thing a union would do," they would quip, "is take your dues."
I worked in a mill, serving breakfast and lunch in a privately-owned cafe to customers -- the folks who worked at the machines up the hall, and on the floor above. Every so often, we would hear about a shop closing down or laying off ten or twelve people -- most of their staff. The rest of our clientele were bus trip bargain hunters who completely bought the brochures' selling points of the "factory outlet" myth, that they were buying products made right there in the very factory they shopped in.
When I worked in one of the clothing stores (an "ultra-hip upscale urban specialty retailer" that sold samples grabbed off the racks at industry shows), I never knew where the clothing was assembled. Indonesia or Tennessee, but not down the hall. Because that was an overstock book wholesaler.
Me? I made bacon-egg sandwiches and tuna melts, then went to my other job.
And I always felt a little queasy whenever I heard a fire alarm.

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