NY Times’ Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Anniversary Coverage: The Way Historical Anniversaries Should Be Covered

Photo by Emily Greenhouse, taken from Steven Greenhouse’s NYT blog post.

The New York Times has a bundle of great coverage of the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City, a landmark moment in American labor history, that is all worth checking out.

The NYT is one of the few major dailies in this country that still pays attention to labor–Steven Greenhouse, their full-time labor reporter, does a solid job covering the beat (his book The Big Squeeze is highly recommended by lots of people, including yours truly), and he contributes a short post recounting his and his daughter’s trip to the former address of one of the fire’s victims to write her name in chalk on the sidewalk, as part of a larger commemoration project throughout the city.

Much of the coverage focuses on the actual history of the incident, of course, but there is also a video clip on garment work in New York City today that is particularly worth watching.

Gabriel Thompson, a Brooklyn-based writer who has done some of the best immigration and labor journalism in recent memory, wrote a moving piece for the Brooklyn Rail a few years ago about immigrant workers in a garment factory in Brooklyn who were working long hours for well below the minimum wage–the woman he profiles, Luz, makes just $150 after two 60-hour weeks, a mind-bogglingly minuscule amount that cannot be anywhere near enough to get by in one of the nation’s most expensive cities.

“[A]s she answers my questions her voice betrays no anger; she could be describing last night’s weather,” Thompson writes. “Instead, she’s telling me she earns about one-fifth New York’s minimum wage.” He continues:

[S]hops like Luz’s increase their competitiveness by breaking the law, paying wages that are actually below that of many factories on the Mexican border. Globalization compelled workers like Luz to migrate to the United States for higher wages; not long after, maquiladora wages followed suit.

The task of ensuring such illegal and immoral actions don’t take place is given to Department of Labor officials–who NYT reporters follow for a day as they inspect New York garment factories.

You don’t get a sense of this in the video, but  Kim Bobo, executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice, chronicles in her 2009 book Wage Theft in America that Departments of Labor all around the country are dreadfully underfunded, understaffed, and unable to hit employers with fines that really hurt. (Bobo’s book was written at the tail-end of the Bush years, after the department’s budgets had been slashed and labor laws repeatedly defanged; current Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis has a much stronger pro-labor reputation, but I don’t know how much funding to DoL enforcement efforts have increased.)

Twenty-first century garment work is in the same precarious position as much of manufacturing work in the U.S.: conditions often border on unbearable, pay is often below minimum wage, basic labor laws are regularly flouted. But any attempt to organize for better conditions and pay has the threat of plant closure hanging over it; the only reason most American garment plants haven’t already shipped overseas or to Mexico is because they are paying their employees so criminally little, a fact that employers repeatedly make clear to employees who may be considering taking their bosses to task for what they consider unfair treatment.

Giving an historical event like the Triangle Fire the kind of commemoration that the Times has done opens up the space for this kind of public dialogue about issues that really haven’t changed in a decade or century. While there thankfully hasn’t been a massive factory fire that has killed 146 workers in recent American history, the stories of workers like those profiled in the Times‘ video and by Thompson show that dreadfully low wages that can’t even provide for basic living expenses are not a thing of the past.

If that’s the case, we still have a desperate need for the kinds of labor reforms and enforcement that came in the wake of Triangle 100 years ago. And if other news outlets would follow the Times’ thorough coverage of the fire’s anniversary to start such public conversations, those reforms could be within reach.

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