Shirtwaist Fire Film Stirs Labor Debate

An HBO Documentary that commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire premiered Tuesday night at NYU’s Silver Center, which is located at the historic site of the fire off Washington Square.

The tragic blaze that killed 146 immigrant women who worked in the factory sparked the growth of unions across the country.

Marc Levin, the producer of “Triangle: Remembering The Fire,” acknowledged the parallels between the event the film depicts and the labor disputes unfolding today.

“None of us planned for the film to be quite as topical as it is because of what’s happening in Wisconsin, and Ohio, and Indiana, and New Jersey — the debates that we’re seeing about public employees, the future of the labor movement, and the right to collective bargaining,” he said.

“In many ways I was thinking that the ghosts of the fire’s victims wouldn’t believe what they’re witnessing right now — the assault that we’re seeing on worker’s rights and middle class citizens,” he added. “So it had relevance that we never anticipated.”

Bruce Raynor, President of Workers United/SEIU, said it was both “sad” and “inspiring” that workers are fighting for the same rights now as they were 100 years ago.

“The Triangle Shirtwaist fire is probably the single most important event for working people in the history of the city of New York. ... One hundred years later we have an America where the governor of Wisconsin feels it’s okay to strip thousands of working people of the right to collectively bargain and to have any say in their working conditions,” he said.

Fashion designer Nanette Lepore, who has long advocated for the rights of workers in New York’s garment district, tied developers’ plans to obliterate it to the anti-labor movement in Wisconsin.

“I’ve been trying to get everyone to realize that the fashion business is a viable industry right here in New York City where we actually make things and manufacture things. Hopefully what’s happening in states like Wisconsin will direct some focus to the Garment Center and help save it,” she said.

Actress Tovah Feldshuh, who first starred in a TV movie about the fire in 1979, said that narrating the documentary had informed her about the tragedy “at a different and more specific level.”

“It was an honor to do it, and it was an honor to honor labor in this country — especially now,” she said. “We must take care of our unions. Yes, they cost a fortune, but they’re why this democracy survives.”

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