As a middle school student in the 1960s, Abbott Gorin first heard his grandmother sing an unusual song that had haunted her since her own childhood on the Lower East Side.
It was the funeral dirge for the Italian immigrants who were killed in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, whose bittersweet legacy will be commemorated on its 100th anniversary on March 25.
The fire took the lives of 146 workers, mostly young immigrant women of Jewish or Italian origin. It thrust workplace safety to the center of the American political agenda and led to reforms that remain in place today.
On Thursday evening, March 10, Gorin, an attorney who lives in Millburn and is a member of the Jewish Cultural School and Society, will speak about the tragic event in an address at the Springfield Public Library, drawing in part on his and his parents’ union backgrounds.
He spoke about his planned talk in a Feb. 11 phone interview.
NJJN: Why is the Triangle Shirtwaist fire such an important topic a century after it occurred?
Gorin: There are a lot of misconceptions about the fire. One is that the doors were locked to keep out union organizers. In fact, in the Triangle factory, the union had already been busted and they were worried about pilferage, but it was only about $21 in three months.
The real issue was that the standpipe was not connected and the firefighters could not get access to water [and] the extreme violence of the fire — it started at 4:44 p.m. and was burnt out by 5:15. The switchboard on the 10th floor was shut down at 4:40, and someone there could have run down one flight and opened the door. The factory was a tinder box with all the excess fabric and the tissue paper from patterns. The scraps were gathered up and thrown into bins. One of the cutters threw a cigar into a bin and it went up.
NJJN: You are basing much of your speech on the book Triangle: The Fire That Changed America by David Von Drehle. Why was it the fire that changed America?
Gorin: There were about 27,000 members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, and afterward, its membership grew to 250,000. They raised the level of goods being produced and they raised the standard of living for garment workers; New York was able to compete with Paris fashion houses.
Among the people changed by the fire was Al Smith, who was a New York State assemblyman and a Democratic Party hack. He was fighting against fire and safety regulations for workers. But after the fire and…making condolence calls to Jewish and Italian workers’ families, he said, ‘I don’t want to be a hack anymore. I am going to make sure this doesn’t happen [again].’ In 1928 he became the first Irish Catholic to run for president [losing to Republican Herbert Hoover, 59 to 41 percent].”
NJJN: A similar fire in a Newark sweatshop claimed the lives of 26 people — many of them Jews — nearly four months before the Triangle fire. Why did that fire not have a greater impact on working conditions in the garment industry that could possibly have prevented the tragedy at Triangle?
Gorin: The 26 lives lost in the Newark fire were quite substantial. But after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire there were 100,000 people on the Lower East Side following the coffins. The lives lost in Newark were equally valuable, but because there was no political outlet it had much less public impact. There was a sense that if you let these factory owners do whatever they wanted, it would be good for America. This was trickle-down economy.
NJJN: Why is the Triangle Shirtwaist fire so personally meaningful to you?
Gorin: I was a member of the Teamsters Union for 29 years when I was an attorney working for the New York City Housing Preservation Department. Both of my parents were shop stewards — my father in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, my mother in the teachers’ union. I don’t believe that government is the problem. Government regulation has an important role in saving people’s lives. I believe government regulation protects people from greed, and greed can kill people. It has certainly happened recently in the financial sector, and we also saw this recently in the Deepwater Horizons fire in the Gulf of Mexico.