In the middle of downtown New York, crowds watch aghast as people leap from upper-storey windows to their deaths, and the building they’ve tried to escape from is rapidly consumed by overwhelming fire.
No, the scene isn’t the Twin Towers on 9/11, ten years ago.
The date is March 25, 1911, and this year marks the 100th anniversary of what has been the worst workplace fire in North American history to date, until the tragic events of September 11, 2001.
If you were to ask the average person on the street about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, most would probably shrug their shoulders or stare at you blankly.
Yet this tragedy in a building at the corner of Washington Square and Green Street in New York’s Greenwich Village occupies a significant place in the annals of labour history, both for its horror, and for the victories that it heralded.
Triangle: Remembering the Fire is one of the gripping films to be presented this week at CLIFF, the Canadian Labour International Film Festival.
Now in its third year, this annual free screening of films about the world of work is sponsored by major union organizations across the country. It plays this year at more than 50 Canadian locations, including Whitehorse, during the month of November.
The 146 young women who perished in the Triangle fire were mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants who worked in the garment industry, hunched over sewing machines and crowded together in deplorable conditions.
Marc Levin and Daphne Pinkerson, Emmy-winning directors of Shmatta: From Rags to Riches To Rags, shown at last year’s CLIFF festival, followed up on their history in the Triangle film.
Two years before the fire, many of the workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory had participated in a walkout by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), dubbed the Uprising of the 20,000.
It was the first great uprising of women in America, at a time when they didn’t even have the vote. Many of them were beaten for their efforts by police and hired thugs.
Triangle: Remembering the Fire draws from archival sources as well as interviews with the relatives and descendants of the workers.
“The business of government was to help business, not workers”, says Daphne Pinkerson in an online interview.
“It was all self-regulation, and not much of it. No one wanted to take the time or money to invest in safety precautions.”
She goes on to describe the labour climate at the time among the immigrant workers.
“Many of the workers had fled the pogroms in eastern Europe and Russia. They survived steerage to come here. They didn’t come all this way just to be persecuted again by factory owners,” Pinkerson says.
Many of them were highly politicized when they got here… there was nascent socialism, Zionism, a very fertile political and social culture among these poor people.”
As the workers attempted to escape the carnage, they found that the factory’s exit doors had been locked by the owners, as a measure of preventing theft. Those who fled to the rickety fire escape found that it collapsed under their weight.
After the memorial ceremony – which drew some 100,000 mourners – New York civic and state officials began working with the union to enact workplace safety legislation that formed the basis for the growth of the modern labour movement.
“We never foresaw that the release of this film would coincide with such a heated debate over collective bargaining rights and public employee benefits” says Marc Levin. “You have to wonder if we’re going backwards.
“The mainstream media has dismissed unions and government regulations. There are some issues with both of them, but it’s important to remember how these things we take for granted came about, whether it’s child labour laws, or just the right to organize, many of which are products of this progressive era,” Levin adds.
“I think the film is more relevant than ever.”
It’s just one of the thought-provoking and issue-driven free films featured at the CLIFF festival.
Yukon screenings will take place at 7 p.m. on Thursday, November 17 at the Yukon Employee’s Union Hall (2nd and 4th Avenue in Whitehorse) and 4 p.m. on Sunday, November 20 at Dänojá Zho Cultural Centre in Dawson City.
The full schedule of films is available online at http://labourfilms.ca/
Brian Eaton is a cinema buff who reviews current films and writes on other film-related topics on a regular basis.