A Fire Remembered, From Generation to Generation

Letter to the Editor

Published March 23, 2011, issue of April 01, 2011.
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So much has been written about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, which remains as frightening today as it was 100 years ago. We’re especially struck by these memories in light of the Wisconsin government’s decision to act against its public-sector unions.

This brings to mind the choice posed in Jane Eisner’s thoughtful March 4 article “Remembering a Personal and Political Tragedy.” We would opt for the approach to remembering recommended by Eisner: Let us remember this terrible tragedy as though it were yesterday, and plant it firmly within today’s context.

It may surprise some (except for today’s victims) that sweatshops remain alive and well globally. Why? Think about what was going on in 1911 — fierce competition among manufacturers, a large pool of under-skilled labor, lack of essential safety and economic regulations and generally uncaring attitudes about workers’ conditions, rights and welfare. This all-too-familiar scenario hasn’t gone away at all, and only labor’s vigilance will keep it from returning to our door here at home.

Now, it’s understandable that we grandchildren of International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union co-founder and three-term president Benjamin Schlesinger would feel this way — we were raised from birth with union souls. But not all Americans appreciate history, and too many politicians rise these days to demonize unions, lumping in the good with the bad. Too many today seem unburdened with an appreciation of the crucial role played by unions like the ILGWU, and by leaders like our grandfather, in motivating the changes that we take now for granted. And now too many are oblivious to the dangers to workers, and hence to society, posed by overt union-busting.

As our grandfather noted in his speech at the memorial following the Triangle fire, history should not be allowed to forget what happened. Making sure the fire is not forgotten is a fitting tribute to the memory of those who perished on March 25, 1911.

Pownal, Vt.

Westport, Conn.

Bethesda, Md.

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