With Fr. Jim Martin in California for this year's L.A. Religious Education Congress, I'm playing the role of culture editor this week. So be sure to check out this week's online culture offering: a review of two new documentaries of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire from Clayton Sinyai. Clayton blogs for us on labor issues, and is the author of Schools of Democracy: A Political History of the American Labor Movement. The HBO documentary, “Triangle, Remembering the Fire” premieres Sunday. PBS's “Triangle Fire” can be viewed online. Clayton writes:
Both documentaries tell much the same story, using a similar repertoire: archived photos, stock black and white film footage, “talking head” interviews with scholars and descendants of the story’s principals. The PBS “Triangle” devotes much of its viewing time to context, with extended treatments of the turn of the century garment industry and the union struggles, leading into the account of the terrible fire. HBO’s “Triangle” narrative is built around a blow-by-blow recounting of the fire itself, with contextual information offered along the way. Either film would make an excellent educational tool for a high school classroom or a parish social justice group.
At a time when ever more insistent voices call for unions and “big government” to stop obstructing business, the fire offers a crucial warning. “People forget the Triangle fire at their peril,” observes labor historian Leigh Benin. “If people want to know what deregulated industry would look like, look at the bodies outside the Triangle building.” In the absence of labor unions and public regulations to set a solid floor under working conditions, Triangle fires (and Deepwater Horizon disasters) are certain to continue. The same market competition that makes free enterprise so enterprising also drives every firm to constantly lower costs, even—at times—at the price of jeopardizing safety and justice.