Tuesday, August 1, 2017

"Activism Matters" Reasons for the Triangle Fire Coalition

Professor Mary Anne Trasciatti
“Remembering the Triangle Fire: Performances, Screening and Presentations,” was held March 24 at New York University's Casa Italiana. The occasion was the 96th anniversary of the tragedy.

The program included Mary Anne Trasciatti, a professor at Hofstra University and president, board of directors, Remember The Triangle Fire Coalition, who talked about the group's plans and inspirations.

Trasciatti told those gathered that her connection to the fire is an organic one in as much as her mother worked in the clothing business and was a member of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union.

The first person to tell her of the tragedy, her mother explained, “how she knew she was safe in the factory where she worked because of what happened to the girls of the Triangle Fire.”
Clara Lemlich.

To read and study such things, labor history in general, Trasciatti observed, is to require a healthy optimism, “because you lose many of the battles.” 

However, the dark cloud of the Triangle tragedy is not without a silver lining.

“People who witnessed the fire were determined to do something,” Trasciatti explained. “And so unions did something. They stepped up their organizing. In 1913, they called a general strike in New York City. They won raises, a shorter work week and better labor management conditions.”

She highlighted the work of Clara Lemlich in helping to shape ILGWU Local 25 into a formidable entity.

Lamentably, Trasciatti noted, the union responded by denying her a pension when she refused to renounce her membership in the Communist Party. 

In 1919, Trasciatti said, Italians in New York formed their own Italian-language local. “The history of Italians and Jews is rather interesting. They worked together pretty well, but there were some issues in the union about language.”

Organizing in Local 89 of the Italian Dressmakers was driven by Angela Bambace, an important figure/character in Jennifer Guglielmo's “Living the Revolution.” “If you haven't heard of Angela Bambace, you should look her up," Trasciatti urged.

Suffragettes, women muckrackers, all contributed to the effort at making Triangle a turning point in industrial history, she stated.

Angela Bambace.
Frances Perkins, who would become the first female Secretary of Labor in Franklin Delano Roosevelt's administration, was part of the Factory Investigation Committee which informed landmark safety legislation in New York State.

“So look around this room,” Trasciatti directed. “Exit signs, sprinklers, maximum occupancy limits, outward opening doors. These are all the legacy of Triangle.”

The less obvious aspects of the Triangle legacy are the establishment of Social Security Insurance, a jewel of the New Deal, which Perkins claimed began on March 25, 1911, the day of the Triangle Fire. 

“Triangle showed that the state has a role in freeing us from the worst aspects or ourselves,” said Trasciatti. “In this case, the unfettered pursuit of profit.”

The hard-won victories of the New Deal are imperiled in the present political moment, said Trasciatti, “but the story of Triangle is more relevant than ever. Activism matters!"

The American cult of individualism, she observed, renders collective action a form of cultural subversion. Remember The Triangle Fire Coalition, “aims to channel this kind of subversion. To channel 'I' into 'We.' We are building a memorial, in part, to fulfill that aim," she said.  

A design has been chosen and a deal has been made with the building owner, NYU. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) budgeted $1.5 million for the project, but it is not enough and fundraising for an endowment to maintain the memorial is ongoing. 

“This is a globally significant site for women's history, immigrant history and labor history,” said Trasciatti. “We want something on the building that forces people to stop and take notice.”

The program, linked to here, also features a performance by LuLu LoLo of two acts from her play, "Soliloquy for a Seamstress." LuLu is a founding member of the Vito Marcantonio Forum, which is a constituent member of the coalition and committed to supporting its important work. She is also a member of the Triangle Coalition's board.

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