The Fire Last Time: Remembering Triangle Shirtwaist

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.

Read the full review here.

Tim Reidy


Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
8 years ago
"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."

Balderdash!  Anyone familar with the Federal Register finds the notion that today's economy is under-regulated laughable.   Least of all the oil drilling industry.  No, the problem is quite the opposite: over-regulation that breeds the one thing clearly at play in the Deepwater Horizon scandal - corruption and cozy relationships between regulators and the regulated.  This is the price for over-regulation, and it is a price only the super-rich and large corporations can pay!  Thus, I find it ironic that people worried about "Big Business" and economic social justice continue to push for even bigger Government - the same Big Business firms push for the same!  Thus, Big Business pays big bucks to big lobbyists, lawyers, accountants, etc. to skirt the regs, and true economic comeptition suffers!  And don't get started on the labor unions - see recent New Jersey indictments for a full report!  We need smarter, more transparent and more efficient regulation and true economic competition.

Numerous economic studies support this.
Vince Killoran
8 years ago
The labor movement HAS been at the forefront of immigrant rights but I think David is referring to undocumented/illegal immigrants.  In that case, the American labor movement has, in more recent years, been at the forefront of illegal immigrant rights.

One of the things the documentrary (and David von Drehele's TRIANGLE: THE FIRE THAT CHANGED AMERICA) is how employers fought workplace rights tooth-and-nail, and how politicians equivocated on a regular basis. The lesson for the labor movement today? Rank-and-file activism is best: don't depend on employer good will or politicians.
Vince Killoran
8 years ago
I'm sorry to burst your bubble David but your view of the labor movement is about forty years out of date.  You're thinking of George Meany chomping on a cigar ca. 1970.

The few gains unions are making today in the private sector are in places like LA & Las Vagas-mostly service workers (e.g., food, hosptiality). Many of them are immigrants. In the public sector they are everyone from janitors to nurses to school teachers to municipal groundskeepers. Lots of them are immigrants as well. The number of foreign-born union members has increases by 24% since '96 while the number of native-born has declined by 6% (ther gap between the two is closing with 11% of foreign-born having union rep. and 14% of native-born being represented).

As for undocumented workers, the labor movement has thrown its weight behind their cause (see, e.g.,
8 years ago
Speaking about out of date.  All the hand wringing over the poor union workers when essetnially they are bankrupting the country.  All those little faces in the photo above would now be teaching at our public schools and in our area making $130,000 + a year in salary and benefits.  Let's not ever talk about the poor public union worker.  There are obviously some but most are now on the gravy train as the unions have corrupted the system by black mailing and intimidating the politicians into giving them sweet heart deals.

Maybe Mr. Sinyai, should review 'Waiting for Superman' to illustrate how wonderful our union leaders are.  Bringing up stuff from 100 years ago makes interesting history but it is no more relevant than portraying the modern world by using Oliver Twist asking for more gruel as an accurate vision of what the Industrial Revolution wrought.  The Triangle building fire was horrible but it was a plumb job in otherwise grim world as the review said.  We tend to evaluate the past on today's standards and the alternative for these woman were not nice.  Maybe they should have gone to that worker's paradise in the socialist world that was about to embark in a few years after this tragedy.  Waiting for Superman is today and it is an incredible indictment of the largest unions in the country, those wonderful teacher's unions which are about as corrupt as one can get.  They have destroyed a lot more lives than the Triangle building fire and if not checked will bring the country down with it.
8 years ago
Mr. Reidy,

The teachers in my area which is suburban New York city make on the average more than $100,000 a year. The published salaries are available and open for all to see. On top of this the state incurs about $30,000 a year in retirement benefits which it must supply at some time in the future.  It is probably higher than $30,000 per year because they depend upon a fairy tale method of calculating the returns on investments. A policeman in his early 30's with maybe an associate degree from the local community college is making between $90,000 and $100,000 a year. And in Westchester county they rarely face a life threatening situation.

In White Plains there are over 420 teachers and principals that make more than $100,000 per year in salary and 250 that make more than $120,000 a year. In Yonkers there are over 1150 teachers and principals that make more than $100,000. So I did not exaggerate.  I probably understated the financial obligations owed to teachers, not over stated them. A teacher that is 15 years out of a master's program in teaching is making about $110,000-$120,000 if they did not take any time off to have children.  One that has been around for 30 years and in his or her mid 50's is making $125,000-$140,000 and ready to retire.  Again these do not include the retirement payments they are accruing.

I am afraid I am shining a light but the light is not welcome.  Too many people would prefer that things remain in the dark.  Unfortunately the internet is undoing a lot of this.

What has the comment about Catholic schools have to do with anything?  Do you know something other than what was said in the movie?  The little girl was learning but couldn't pay the tuition so she couldn't continue.  That is what I got out of it but I would have to see it again to see what else was said.  And as I said it had nothing to do with the union problem.  I bet there would be a lot of Catholics that might pay her tuition after seeing the movie. I know a priest who had to close down a Catholic school and was getting threats from the parents for doing so.  But the school was losing $200,000 a year and the parents did not  want to pay the money.  The schools don't run on air and seeing all the money the public school teachers are sucking out of the system put things into perspecitve.

Around where I live they are laying off teachers and increasing class sizes so the teachers can maintain their exorbitant salaries.  As I said in another post, the unions are eating their young and proud of it.  And the so called consciousious teachers just look the other way and take their checks and meanwhile some complain about teaching larger class sizes.  No one will challenge the unions and if they do they are toast.  If they all gave up their above average wage increase of the last 15 years none of the teachers would be laid off and the school districts would not be in trouble financially.
8 years ago
Mr. Reidy,

Here is a youtube video pointing out that Milwaukee teachers will be compensated $100,000 on the average next year.  The number for this year is $95,000.  Almost half of this is benefits which do not get covered in the link you provided.

Here are some more specifics in a web article 

It does not say whether the over 3/4 million dollars a year the teachers are compensated for Viagra usage is included in the benefits.  There is apparently a law suit going on over this benefit at the moment.  

So I did not provoke with any untruth and I have shown light on the basic problem which is the complete opposite of your accusation.  If I wanted to provoke I could start pointing out some of the civil behavior of the rank and file activism by union supporters in Wisconsin.
8 years ago

I am not making anything up. You don't have to in order to counter most of the authors on this site.  You just have to dig a little and I happen to know some local teachers.  Every public employee's salary in the state of New York is on line.  I believe it is available for other states as well.  For school teachers I was using their published salaries by individual. If the lady next store teaches 3rd grade, you can get her salary.  A large percentage of all the public employees in the country have defined benefit plans and the cost for these are paid by the state in New York not the local school district.  But no government organization works like a business has to and does not put aside enough to pay for these future obligations.  Just as there is not social security fund a lot of states will pay their obligations as they come due.

I went to the state employee benefits web site for NY.  I put in a current wage ($105,000 which is low for a teacher where I live who is five years away from retirement), how many years i would have worked (I said 39), and my hypothethical birthday.  It said that on retiring in 2016 my pension would be $101,000 a year and after 5 years would be eligilbe for COLA.  Health care is on top of that and would cover this fictional person for two years till they reach the age for medicare and the wife till she reached medicare age.  So free health care and a $100+ g's a year.  It also estimated that the salary for this person in 5 years would be $127,000 so they guess the averge wage increase would be $5,000 a year.  There is a lot more math than this involved but it will not change the underlying story.  That is why many of the people I met on a recent cruise were retired public employees.  One couple were on their something like their 50th cruise.

Few working stiffs in the private sector have anything close to this.  So do not ever feel sorry for the teachers or other public employees.  They got security, way above average wages and good benefits.  Meanwhile 10% out there are unemployed and another 10% are under employed.  And all this money to feed the public employee monster is taking away from other things the liberals want which is supposedly to help the poor.  But first things first and the big union money must be serviced first or else the politicans will not get elected.  So screw the poor and the working stiff and the next person who says that protecting unions is a form of Catholic social justice will let's say it kindly, will give me a bad reaction.
Thomas Farrelly
8 years ago
Thank you JR Cosgrove for your thoughtful and fact-based comments. 

As one might expect, the horrible fate of the Triangle Shirtwaist workers is being used by some people to arouse sympathy for today's civil service workers.   While conditions vary from place to place, as a generalization it is safe to say that municipal employees have pay, benefits, and security that make them the envy of most ordinary workers.

A number of people in this and other threads have talked of immigration reform.  I think it important to define what one means by this.  Even the editors of America have never done so in any detailed way.  To some, it may mean improving enforcement of our current laws, and limiting immigration to highly skilled workers who are in short supply in the US.
To others, it means amnesty for illegal immigrants already here, and largely ignoring the laws.  I am not sure what the editors of America, or its columnists, mean.  Other than amnesty and such pieties as "welcoming the stranger in our midst", one wonders whether they simply advocate open borders.  Those who comment here should also specify what it is that they advocate. 
Vince Killoran
8 years ago
Just returning to this thread. Thanks Tim for the link: it confirms what most people know-i.e., teachers' pay place them somewhere in the middle class, often at the lower end.  But Cosgrove's NY exmaple doesn't surprise me: Calif. & NY lead the nation in pay. The fact that a few thousand very senior teachers top six figures is not surprising given the high cost of living. The vast majority make far, far less.

As for public workers in general, well, Rutgers University economist Jeffrey Keefe's research on Wisconsin is telling:  "An earnings equation controlling for work hours of full-time employees demonstrates that Wisconsin public employees earn 4.8% less than comparable private sector workers working comparable annual hours." [EPI BREIFING PAPER #290 (Feb. 2011), p. 10].

Is it true, as Tom claims, that public workers' pay, benefits, and security, "make them the envy of most ordinary workers"? I would think the real "Haves", i.e., the top few percentage of the wealthy in the USA who have benefited in a hugely disproportionate way from tax cuts and other goodies over the course of the last thirty years are the ones to be envied. If you're bugged by the police officer, teacher or municipal clerk down the street who has a decent standard of living but not by the uber-rich and corporate bad behavior, then we really are looking through a different "lens."  I haven't located anything in Catholic social teaching that would justify such raw inequality.
Thomas Farrelly
8 years ago
I don't believe Vince that the average worker compares himself very often with Stanley O'Neal or Stephen Schwartzman, or for that matter with Al Gore, Alex Rodriquez, or Brad Pitt.  They live in a world quite apart from his.  But he does compare himself with people he knows personally, who may work as cops, firemen, school teachers, or in public transit, and are doing jobs he could have aspired to and gotten if he had known better.

The fact that the super-rich should pay more taxes does not justify a coddled class of government workers who have benefited by making deals with politicians.  It is these who get their pay directly from the taxpayer and feel entitled to more and more.  True, Stanley O'Neal ruined his company and walked away with $100 million.  He did not get it from the
Vince Killoran
8 years ago
My point is that these public sector workers are not "coddled."  I don't feel jealous of the cop or firefighter or teacher next door with a living wage nor should you.  According to Catholic social justice doctrine they have a right to it-and it helps build a strong families and communities.  The problem is that there aren't enough unionized workers.

And, yeah, the O'Neals of the world do take our $$-through placing harsh employment conditions on their employees, poor environmental, health & safety records that take a human and financial toll-and then we all get to bail them out!

On to other postings. . .
Thomas Farrelly
8 years ago
Just for the record Vince, I doubt there are many people in the US worth more than ten million a year, and most of them are athletes with fairly short high-earning years.  So it's fine with me if the taxes of the super-rich rise substantially.  Better that their gross pay be more modest to start with.

Also for the record, the EPI is scarcely a source of neutral opinion.  Their studies show exactly what they intend them to show.  I have seen quoted studies that show just the opposite, so take your pick.  But the average family income in the US is about $40000.
Start with that when you talk about lower middle class.

I have great difficulty seeing that Catholic Social Justice Doctrine requires that NJ or WI schoolteachers get raises and improved benefits when the state is in terrible financial shape and taxpayers are in trouble.  In fact, I'm not sure there is any consensus among Catholics as to what social justice doctrine means in any given circumstances.  It strikes me as a buzzword for whatever cause one wants to back.  Personally, I think it requires that Medicare cover my dental costs, hearing aids, and prescription drugs.

8 years ago
''The fact that a few thousand very senior teachers top six figures is not surprising given the high cost of living. The vast majority make far, far less.''

My estimate is that the number should be a few hundred thousand in the state of NY and a high percentage are not very senior.  So the estimate is off by about a 100 fold.  And that does not include retirement benefits. I looked up a teacher I know with 15 years experience.  She makes $110,000 a year in a middle class suburb north of New York City.  Again this does not include retirement benefits. So it is not just a few senior teachers.  And I know one very well who just lost her job because of the nonsense in the senority system.  She is a well experienced teacher who switched districts after  having her children with 14 years experience but because she was new to the district got laid off while several less qualified teachers making more money continued on.  It is a system that screws competence and rewards mediocrity.

I was at a St. Patricks Day parade in a very middle class town north of NY  city which has few if any dangerous neighborhoods.  The police were out in full force marching.  I decided to look up their salaries.  About $130,000 a year average.  Most drive a patrol car.  And I do not think these guys work to 65 before they get a nice retirement package.  All the data is on line.

And maybe people didn't watch the video I linked to above where it showed that Milwaukee teachers are compensated at $100,000 a year and this is not New York or California. And they are not the highest paid teachers in Wisconsin.

These people are not getting a living wage, they are getting 2-3 times the national average and they are sucking all the money out of the system.  And as I said it is the poor who are get the shaft from this supposed example of Catholic social justice.  The model for Catholic social justice is living in the 1930's and even then it was wrong and screwed the poor.
Vince Killoran
8 years ago
Teachers making $105,000 p.a., cops making $130,000: 

Cosgrove, invite us all up to your house in Westchester County some time!

Some final statistics from me:

National average teacher's pay: $45-55 K

National average police pay: $45-55 K

8 years ago
''Teachers making $105,000 p.a., cops making $130,000: ''

They are all on the internet by name. Every single public employee in the state of NY, even the janitors.  And by the way my example of the cops was in Rockland county which is down scale from Westchester and the town is considered mostly blue collar.  House prices are about 75% of Westchester county so the county attracts lower income people.  I did some quick analysis of 5 school districts

White Plains - average salary $104,000 and that includes first year teachers. 420 teachers making more than 100 k a year.
Chappaqua - average salary $109,000  Home of Bill and Hilary 65% make more than 100 k a year
Monroe - about 60 miles from NYC in a somewhat rural area - average salary $84,000 again including new teachers
Port Jervis - about 50 miles further than Monroe from NYC getting into real farm land - average salary - $80,000
Auburn - part of the high unemployment area of upper New York state - average salary $61,000  My guess is that Auburn represents near the bottom for the state.  Home prices average about $140,000 and are about 60% of national average.  So in a place where home prices are 60% of national average, the average teacher salary is $60 k a year not including retirement benefits.

Add about 30-40% to these salaries to cover retirement benefits.

''National average teacher's pay: $45-55 K

National average police pay: $45-55 K''

Mr. Reidy pulled out some statistics above which said the same thing but for Wisconsin he had $46,000 but in Milwaukee it is now $100,000 and that is from the school board on a video and Milwaukee is not supposed to be the high end in Wisconsin. If Wisconsin and New York was wrong in Mr. Reidy's figures, primarily because of the benefits they receive in Wisconsin.  How appropriate is the rest of the figures.  They hide most of the costs.  Milwaukee teachers will be getting $45,000 a year in benefits and I bet they are not taxed.
8 years ago
''If you want to present anecdotal evidence and play around with a NYS search engine that's fine''

This is not anecdotal evidence. These are published information by the state of New York.  I have every salary for the Monroe Woodbury school district.  I have every salary for Port Jervis and for the rest of the school districts.  Want another one, I can look it up and figure out the average in about 2 minutes. You just copy all the people and their salaries into Excel and then divide by the number.  They are in a data base operated by NY state and open to anyone to look at.  I can give you the individual names of everyone in the school districts or the policeman and their wages and I checked it as accurate because my daughter's salary is accurately displayed.  I looked up the next town over for their police salaries. A brand new policeman, 30 years old, is making $101,000 a year.  I know the fellow and I know his father.

As far as the other numbers for the other states I can only say that Milwaukee will be over a $100,000 this upcoming school year and the data base Mr. Reidy pointed to had then at $46,000 for the state.  Whatever the costs are they are real and have to be paid and they add up to over $100,000 per teacher in Milwaukee.  I am well aware of various business costs since we have been operating our own for 20 years.  That doesn't make them funny money.

In NY the state pays retirement costs. Apparently this is true in a lot of states.  In business if you make a commitment to pay a specific retirement cost they have to put the money aside for this each year.  It is a real current cost to the company.  States and municipalities are not doing this and relying on current revenues to pay for these commitments some as long as 40 years ago when the employee first showed up.  Very similar to social security which is paid out of current collections.  But now the obligations are outstripping any ability to pay through current receipts and it gets worse every year and the benefits are extremely generous as my hypothetical teacher would get over $100 k a year plus medical at age 63 when he retires.  It is a Ponzi scheme and like for Bernie Madoff it is coming due and new revenues cannot cover the payments for the old.  

They are sucking trillions  and I mean trillions into their pension payments.  And that money can not be used for  anything the so  called liberals would want to do for the poor.  So don't say Catholic social justice backs this  If it does then Catholic social justice is a farce.  And Glenn Beck will be right on this and all the Jesuits and bishops will be an embarrassed lot as they back the very privileged upper middle class as opposed to the poor.
Vince Killoran
8 years ago
We are at an impasse. Where you see public employees "sucking" money out of the system and causing financial ruins I see state budget problems as a result of Wall Street's misdeeds and corporate bad behavior (causing rising unemployment, homelessness, less tax revenue). Public employees' wages and benefits have remained steady so it's not very compelling to dump the woes of the world into the laps of cops and teachers.

Since you don't really challenge Tim's earlier data on teacher averages or my evidence about benefits we are left with your presentation of salaries in your part of NYS.  As for my data on averages, here is the source:

Vince Killoran
8 years ago
You're not really disputing the national averages are you?  You're just presenting places where teachers' salaries are somewhat higher than the average.  Even then I'm not certain your numbers are correct about NYS, e.g., I checked the Monroe figure and here's what the website said: "The average teacher salary in Monroe-Woodbury Central School District is $59,854" (you claimed it was $84K even for new teachers!); in Port Jervis it's in the mid-$60s, not $80K as you write.

As for benefits, you present these dollar amounts as if the teachers are receiving a second pay packet on the side but that's not the way benefits work, i.e., they include all kinds of things like unemployment insurance and workers' compensation insurance that are in the package but not generally claimed.  The economists I read draw the following conclusion when comparing private and public sector workers: the pay is somewhat lower for the public workers but their compensation is somewhat higher (BTW, I notice that you don't dispute the EPI study I mentioned in an earlier post).

If you want to present anecdotal evidence and play around with a NYS search engine that's fine-I come from a family of teachers, cops, and firefighters and they are all solidly middle class (many have second jobs to put into their kids college funds). None of them are wealthy by any means but their condition is a lot better than their parents were on those jobs thanks to public employee unions.  Your case would be stronger if you engaged a little more directly with the scholarly evidence, and then with the Church's social teaching on unions.
Thomas Farrelly
8 years ago
One more note.  The problem of huge future pension obligations for government workers, with no practical way of meeting them, had been recognized well before the financial crisis that began with the collapse of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, and that we are still working our way out of.  The resulting fall in state and municipal revenues created immediate severe budget problems, and reviews in most states focused attention both on the future unfunded obligations, as well as on the unwillingness of the government unions to share in the pain that had befallen private sector workers.  It also brought focus on some of the really abusive deals that had been worked out between unions and legislators.  So no one is blaming the unions for bringing on the current crisis.  (That blame belongs not only to Wall St. bankers, but to politicians and regulators who encouraged, even demanded, loans to the uncreditworthy;  to hundreds of local banks, to thousands of mortgage brokers, to millions of dishonest and/or feckless borrowers, and to the rating agencies.)  But many people are demanding that they share in the pain, and that they face up to the impossibility of meeting some of the promises that have been made to them.
Vince Killoran
8 years ago
I think public sector unions have, by & large, been willing to offer concessions.  The problem lies with GOP politicians who have attempted to outlaw CB and, simultaneously, give tax breaks to the wealthy and corporate give aways.  Wisconsin is a good example, but so is Pennsylvania where the new governor is trying to cut education funding by half (!) but doesn't want to tax gas reserve drilling. 

Talk about class warfare!


The latest from america

Even in our relationships with family and friends, forgiveness can be hard to come by.
Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, the archbishop of Santiago, Chile, the Vatican announced on March 23.
Gerard O’ConnellMarch 23, 2019
Sister Bibiana Emenaha
A combination of a rapidly growing population, extreme poverty, unemployment and armed conflict push people to cross Nigeria’s porous borders in search of a better life.
Linus UnahMarch 22, 2019
As we come to grips with a national history of violence, greed and racialized privilege, this fable of noblesse oblige rings hollow.
Brandon SanchezMarch 22, 2019