UI Presents Play on Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

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Note: The UI Center for Human Rights is part of International Programs.

By Eric Hawkinson, The Daily Iowan

March 25, 1911.

In a New York City factory near Washington Square, poor immigrant workers, mostly young Jewish and Italian women, laboriously stitched garments. The wages were miniscule, the hours were not, and the supervisors had locked them inside their stifling workrooms on the upper floors of the building to “increase efficiency” — though many historians believe the supervisors had instituted the practice to prevent alleged pilfering by the workers. The building caught on fire, possibly because of a discarded cigarette in a waste container, and 146 of the young women were trapped and either died in the factory or jumped to their deaths, much to the horror of the crowds gathered on the streets.

March 25 marked the 100th anniversary of that tragedy —called the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

Like many organizations across the United States that commemorated both the victims of the fire and the efforts of the many brave women who fought for their rights in changing labor laws, the University of Iowa is honoring the anniversary more creatively.

With a play.

The production Triangle, written by UI student Janet Schlapkohl. The play, a Theater Department production, will open at 8 p.m. today in the Theatre Building’s Theatre B. Shows will continue at 8 p.m. through Saturday and at 2 p.m. on April 10. Admission is $5, free for UI students with valid IDs.

Because locations across the globe still suffer from unfair labor laws — deadly fires have occurred in apparel factories across South Asia in the past year — the UI Labor Center and the UI Center for Human Rights have worked to organize events that correlate with Triangle, hoping to engage people creatively. One such event is a live web chat with workers of a Dominican Republic garment factory.

Those workers, who now make Hawkeye gear under a new brand, have worked to improve labor conditions on their own.

“We became aware of the Triangle production and believe it is a great catalyst for educating students, staff, faculty, and the general public about past and current struggles of workers to realize their human rights in the workplace,” said Amy Weismann, a deputy director of UI Center for Human Rights.

Schlapkohl’s play is a historical reference that follows the story of a group of women from the factory in New York City. Through her meticulous research, she has discovered documents that reveal conversations and speeches spoken by the women workers. Although it is based on fact, it is not strictly a factual narrative.

“The focus over and over is what do larger events do to relationships among people,” Schlapkohl said.

The Iowa City native said this event is unique to our country’s history not only because of its tragic ending but because it galvanized groups of people to make changes in legislation and workplace safety.

“If we’re not reminded of things we’ve fought for or what they meant, if we don’t recall the history often, we relive it,” she said. “I think a reminder is timely.”

Jennifer Sherer, the director of UI Labor Center, also stresses raising awareness of labor issues in the United States.

“We’re living through a historic moment, and looking at what citizens and workers accomplished in the aftermath of the Triangle fire can really help us strategize about what our collective response should be to the kinds of inequality and exploitation that plague our economy,” she said.

With the recent protests about labor laws in Wisconsin and other states, Sherer said, we are living in a time much like what the United States faced in 1911.

“None of us can afford to sit on the sidelines in this debate,” she said. “Remembering what Triangle workers confronted can remind us of what’s at stake for us and what it would mean to go back to a world without workers’ rights.”

Weismann said many people now take for granted the rights and protections they have in the workplace, and she noted that those rights and protections came about because of the hardships that previous generations of workers dealt with. She believes human rights must be protected vigilantly.

“[Schlapkohl’s] play is an intimate and compelling profile of the real women who were a part of the Triangle fire and its aftermath,” Weismann said. “It is an accessible and profoundly affecting way to understand this history but also the humanity of people involved in this work today.”

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