The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire – Then and Now
Vayikra 5771/ March 2011
Rabbi Alexander Kaye
As a child I used to spend most Friday afternoons with my Grandmother. I still remember with the vivid detail of a child’s memory all kinds of things in her home. The most exciting thing about her house was a small wooden cabinet by the kitchen door. Once in a while, she would help me take off the tea pot and photographs that she stored on the cabinet so that we could fold open its top to reveal what was inside – a Singer’s sewing machine. It was a magnificent shiny black and gold machine, with wheels and cogs, and a foot-operated treadle underneath that moved the needle up and down.
Granny was an excellent seamstress machine because she had for many years worked in a garment factory in Manchester. Like many Jews in England, and in New York, she had made a modest living by working over a sewing machine for many years.
The past few days I have been thinking a lot about the Singer’s sewing machine and about my Grandmother because this month marks the centennial of a moment that was both tragic and transformative for the Jewish community of this country and more broadly for all workers in its manufacturing industries.
A century ago, a very significant proportion of the New York Jewish immigrant community, especially the women, worked in garment factories on the Lower East Side. One of those factories was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. On the 8th and 9th floors of a building that is now part of the campus of NYU, hundreds of Jewish and Italian immigrant women made shirtwaists – which were a new kind of women’s blouse. The factory was a classic sweatshop. The workers worked extremely long hours with few breaks. They were poorly paid, received no benefits, and had no recourse to collective bargaining. Expecting their employees to work for long hours in terrible conditions, the owners of the factory would lock the doors to make sure that none of the workers took breaks, and to keep out organizers who would encourage them to unionize.
On 25 March 1911, a fire broke out in the factory. Because the workers had been locked in, they could not escape. 146 people were killed in the fire, or by jumping from the windows. The tragedy left a deep scar on the Jewish community and also helped to introduce stronger garment worker unions and, in time, legislation regulating working hours and minimum wage. It also provoked a religious response. Rabbi Stephen Wise, who himself became very involved in the labor movement as a result of the tragedy, bemoaned the fact that the rush to manufacture goods in the cheapest and most efficient way often comes at the expense of the workers. He said at the time that the lesson of the fire should be that ‘while property is good, life is better. While possessions are valuable, life is priceless.’
Rabbi Wise’s words are reminiscent of an old story about Rabbi Israel Salanter who visited a matzah factory before Pesach where the owner of the factory delighted in showing the rabbi how efficient his manufacturing process was. But Rabbi Salanter was far less concerned with the industrial efficiency than with the treatment of the workers, which in this case was highly exploitative. He was so concerned with this maltreatment that he declared the matzah produced by the factory to be halachically prohibited because it contained blood. The matzah did not literally contain blood, of course. But the metaphorical blood of the mistreated workers was enough for Rabbi Salanter to render the matzah halachically inedible.
Things have certainly changed in the past century. But not enough. Just two days ago (10 March) eight people were killed in a garment factory fire in Bangladesh. And this is the third such fire in a matter of weeks. Last December a fire swept through another garment factory, also in Bangladesh. In echoes of the Triangle factory tragedy, fire exits were blocked and 27 people were killed and more than 100 injured either from the fire itself or from jumping from windows. Workers in this factory, like many others, worked for very low wages to make clothes for a popular American high street store.
And, believe it or not, sweatshops do not just exist abroad. According to estimates from the Department of Labor, there are about 7000 garment manufacturing businesses in New York City alone. And of them, well over half, which employ over 50,000 workers, are sweatshops where workers often make less than minimum wage, and suffer poor suffer health and safety environments. (I had to read that last statistic several times, and to verify it in the original source because it was so shocking and hard to believe. But it is true).
A major difference between 1911 and 2011 is that the workers who are being underpaid and dying in fires today are on the whole not Jewish New Yorkers, but South Americans, East and South-East Asians, and Africans. However, the fact that it is not our own people, but other human beings who are suffering under these conditions does not mitigate our responsibility to take this matter extremely seriously. The Torah repeatedly exhorts us to be concerned with the suffering of others precisely because of our own memory of suffering. Do not oppress the poor, the orphan, the stranger, כי גרים הייתם בארץ מצרים – because you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Because we suffered, we care more about the suffering of the others. The painful history of our own community in the manufacturing industries should make us more sensitive to the abuses suffered by others.
So I have sketched out a problem. But knowing the problem is only the first step because in this case the problem has no simple solution and perhaps no total solution at all. It is not feasible to regulate and monitor all factories at home and abroad and enforce rules in all of them. But even if it were, some have suggested that the enforcement of fair wages and safety standards could put untold numbers out of work and could in fact be detrimental to the economies of developing countries. Enforcing labor regulations could, in the long-term, end up hurting the very people we would want to protect and empower. And of course this is not the only problem that is so complicated that no obvious solution exists. How do we confront brutal dictatorships like Iran while negotiating the politics of the Middle East? What is the right way for Israel to engage with its neighbors? How do we confront global poverty and disease? In short, how do we think about problems that are so entrenched into global economic patterns and so complicated and multifaceted that they seem to have no solution whatsoever, leaving it impossible for us to know how best to act?
As an attempt to suggest an approach to this kind of problem, let us look closely at one of the sacrifices described in this week’s Torah reading. The parsha lists a number of חטאת sin-offerings. They are sacrifices brought for serious sins that are committed not by wanton evil or wrongdoing, but by mistake, or through ignorance. They include the חטאת היחיד, which is brought by an individual who unwittingly sins, and also other sacrifices and sin-offerings for when the leaders of the people like the king or high-priest sin unwittingly.
But the חטאת I want to focus on is called the חטאת הקהל, the communal sin-offering. This is brought in a situation where the entire people, without realizing it, are all involved in the same involuntary sin. This might happen if the Sanhedrin rules wrongly that something forbidden is actually permitted and so the entire people, or at least the majority of them, end up unwittingly performing a prohibited act.
וְאִם כָּל-עֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל, יִשְׁגּוּ, וְנֶעְלַם דָּבָר, מֵעֵינֵי הַקָּהָל...
If the whole congregation of Israel shall err, and the matter is hidden from the community...
This is a case in which a widespread wrongdoing has been propagated. Everyone in the community has been involved in it. And yet no one person caused it, and no one person can solve it. It is a systemic problem. In this sense, it is analogous to the problem of worker’s conditions that I have been discussing. And indeed, it is analogous to many issues of political and social justice in the world today where there is a widespread problem that is woven into the fabric of the entire עדה, all of society. Where the complications of a global economy make it so difficult for us to apportion blame in any simple way, and difficult for us to imagine that any individual can make a difference. How is such a situation to be approached?
The חטאת הקהל offers us three crucial insights in our dealing with problems like these:
1) The people are required to bring a חטאת sacrifice even when there is no straightforward apportionment of blame. In fact it is only brought in situations where no willful wrongdoing has been carried out. It therefore gives us a way of saying that if something is wrong with society, it is wrong with society. Even if the bad situation is a function of global economic patterns of incredible complexity; even if there is no obvious solution, or perhaps no solution at all, injustice is still injustice. A שגגה, an unwitting error, is still an error that needs to be addressed.
2) According to the Torah the first step in these circumstances, even before the sacrifice is brought, is
וְנוֹדְעָה הַחַטָּאת אֲשֶׁר חָטְאוּ
The sin that was committed becomes known
The wrongdoing has to be acknowledged. The sin-offering does not help at all unless the sin is known about. Acknowledgement alone does not solve the problem. But it is an important step. And the same applies in questions of global social justice. We do not say to ourselves that just because a problem is too big to think about and too complicated to eradicate that we should ignore it altogether. It is imperative for us to be conscious of the shortcomings of the systems in which we operate and the injustices that pervade them. It is only through raising consciousness that we can slowly inch along in the right direction, even if a total solution seems impossible.
3) Once the acknowledgement has been made, an offering is brought. The offering for this communal sin-offering is exceptional in a fascinating way. Almost every other public sacrifice is paid for out of the Temple treasury. But the חטאת הקהל is paid for by individual contributions from every member of the nation. In the words of Rashi (Menachot 51b) ‘The money is collected from every single individual.’ The sacrifice for the entire nation was only one bull, so the contribution of each individual must have been relatively small. But the Torah regards that small contribution to be essential.
In problems of overwhelming complexity, we still have to make our own contributions, however small. Thinking of the centennial of the Triangle Factory fire, and of sweatshops today, what might our contribution be? Perhaps we will support or volunteer for American Jewish World Service (www.ajws.org) or other organizations that work with NGOs the world over to improve the situation of the world’s poor who produce much of our clothes, food and other goods. Perhaps we will support or volunteer for organizations like Uri L’Tzedek (www.utzedek.org), the Orthodox social justice organization that, among other things, works in partnership with Jewish-owned businesses to make sure that our own community keeps to the laws that protect workers. Perhaps we will make small changes in our buying habits, and try to buy garments or other products produced in ethical ways. None of these actions, or others like them, will solve the entire problem. But that is not our responsibility. Our responsibility is to make our own individual contributions. The work is not for us to finish. But nor are we free to exempt ourselves from it.
I remember my Grandmother’s sewing machine so well. If I close my eyes I remember the way the wheels were connected, the way the machine oil smelled, the motion of the needle. This is built into the fabric of my memory. And I know that I am not the only person in this room whose grandparent was an immigrant or the child of immigrants and who worked long hours in a factory to make ends meet. So when I read about bad working conditions in factories today, I take it very personally. And especially because of our communal memory of the Triangle Factory fire, I believe we should all take it very personally. To be sure, the problem of working conditions the world over is unimaginably complicated and difficult to address. But our parsha reminds us that this does not diminish our responsibility to recognize it, raise consciousness about it, and for each of us to do whatever we can in our own way to make a difference.