The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Triangle Shirtwaist film, panel bring labor struggles into contemporary context

By Jonathan McJunkin

Local labor activists and a few Macalester students filled around a third of John B. Davis lecture hall on Sunday to for a film and panel discussion on the New York City Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, a seminal event in labor history. The event was the first in a series of local events organized by Jewish Community Action to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the tragedy. It was also part of Untold Stories, an annual series of labor history events coordinated by the St. Paul Public Library.Mar. 25 marks the centennial of the fire, which resulted in the deaths of 146 garment workers, mostly young Jewish and Italian immigrant women. The tragedy could have been prevented by even the most basic safety precautions, and though the owners of the factory were acquitted of wrongdoing, the fire marks an important date in labor history as it spurred the creation of new regulations for workplace safety and galvanized the labor moment even further during what had already been a very active period.

Peter Rachleff, Macalester History professor, played a major role in bringing the panel to JBD.

“Having community-focused events at Macalester is a way to bring students into contact with trade unionists, immigrant rights activists, members of community-based projects,” Rachleff said.

Shar Knutson, the President of the Minnesota AFL-CIO, introduced the panel and the documentary. She emphasized the impact of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire on today’s workers, and spoke about the current conflicts in the labor movement.

“I believe that they did not die in vain-they forced our nation to see the cold, hard, truth about working conditions,” Knutson, said.

She framed the current conflict in Wisconsin over collective bargaining for public-sector workers as another more contemporary and less extreme moment of clarity. “I think it’s an ‘I get it now’ moment for many people,” she said.

The film spent as much time focusing on the labor strikes and organization that began before the fire as it did on the fire itself, including a massive strike of shirtwaist makers in the year before that involved many of the fire’s eventual victims, along with the wealthy women of the trade unionist movement and some male garment workers, who launched their own large strike shortly after.

The strikes led to many factory owners signing rudimentary workers-rights agreements with their employees-the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory did not.

The documentary then preceded to a graphic description of the events of the fire itself, involving blocked exit doors and a mass of flammable debris on the floor of the factory. In closing, the film discussed the energy and anger built by the tragedy and its overall importance to the labor union.

After the film, several panelists, including Historian Hy Berman of the University of Minnesota, Liban Ali of UNITE-HERE Local 17, and CTUL (Workers United in the Struggle) activist Veronica Mendez spoke about the history of the fire and contemporary labor issues.

Issues discussed included the importance of coalition building between Italians and Jews in the days leading up to the shirtwaist makers’ strike, the relation between immigration issues and workers’ issues, and current local activism, including CTUL’s Campaign for Justice in Retail Cleaning.

“It seems to me that growing numbers of students are concerned about the treatment of immigrants in US society, and, as an historian, I think it is important for students to know how immigrants have been treated throughout US history,” said Rachleff on this event’s importance to Macalester students. “It is also important that students learn more about the place of unions in US history, the resistance to them, the sacrifices that workers have made to establish them, and the ways that they have impacted society.”

There will be two other events in the Untold Stories series at Macalester in April. The first will be a working-class poetry reading in the Chapel on Apr. 14 and a screening of the documentary “AbUsed” about a mass arrest and deportation of immigrant workers on Apr. 17 in JBD.

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