Triangle to Tazreen and Rana Plaza: Memories of
Artist Robin Berson

By Ariful Islam

Translation Nasima Akhter & Firoz Ahmed

25th March 1911 is an unforgettable day in the history of New York City and the entire labor movement. On this day, 146 workers died in a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory of Manhattan. The factory occupied the top three floors of a ten-storey building. In those days, the owners of the factory would keep the factory doors locked, ostensibly to prevent theft but also to keep union organizers out. When the fire started, those doors were locked. Unable to get out of the death trap, some workers died of asphyxiation,, some burned to death, and 62 jumped from the windows and died on the sidewalk 100 feet below. Almost all of them were poor Jews and Italian Immigrant workers; out of these 123 were women aged between 14 and 24 years.

The events that followed this were historically significant. The factory owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, were arrested and charged with manslaughter for ordering the locked doors. However, they were released in few months due to lack of evidence that they were aware of the locked doors. Victims’ families brought a civil suit against Blanck and Harris, and the court awarded the families $75.00 compensation for each victim. At the same time,, the owners received over $60,000 in insurance payments for their losses, or roughly $400 per victim. Harris and Blanck were back in business within a week, with similar conditions for their workers. When they were arrested again for keeping the factory doors locked, the court imposed a fine of $20.00.

But this preventable tragedy raised awareness about the working environment in the United States, and the workers called for protest. The New York State Legislature formed a committee to investigate workers’ conditions, and they submitted a report with specific recommendations addressing the problems faced by workers. Based on that, 34 new factory safety laws were passed. New York’s reforms set an example for the rest of the country. To prevent the loss of life from fire or other accidents in factories and to ensure a safe working environment, a Factory Investigation Commission was formed in New York. It was made mandatory that all factories follow a fire prevention program, identify emergency exits, install alarms, and ensure reasonably sanitary toilets and fixed working hours. Many women workers formed Trade Union.The American Association of Safety Engineers was founded at this time.

The building that housed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory is now a university building in New York. The building has been designated a National Historic Landmark because of the fire. Each year on 11th March these abused workers are remembered. In 2011 at the centennial remembrance of the Triangle tragedy different members and organisations formed the ‘Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition’. They thought about observing the 100 year with special events. That’s when historian, librarian, and artist Robin Berson planned to use art to keep the memories alive.

Robin Berson had majored in medieval history as an undergraduate. Graduate school brought her to Manhattan, where she taught history, was the managing editor of a scholarly journal and raised two children. Her love of research and her leftist leanings led to her writing several books on unconventional moral heroes. When an artist friend asked her to help make shirtwaists for the centennial commemoration, she was drawn into the Coalition, which is raising funds to put a permanent memorial on the building itself. Berson and others in the Coalition were concerned that the 101st anniversary of the fire might not move people as the 100th had. She was already an experienced quilter, so it was a logical step to imagine a big quilt in remembrance of the Triangle workers.

It seemed especially fitting to honor garment workers with fabric and textiles. In the collaborative spirit of the labor movement, Berson reached out to other quilters as well as to students at the Fashion Institute of Technology who had spent a semester studying the fire and recorded their impressions with powerful illustrations. She gathered portraits of the victims and documents about the fire, working from contemporaneous newspapers that had been archived. The families of some victims contributed photos. She said, “We wanted to show the hopes and promise of the young lives that were lost. We went beyond standard images of the fire itself. “With a few exceptions they worked from tiny photos in 110-year-old newspapers; when the images were enlarged to a workable size, they were almost unrecognizable and had to be rebuilt with ink, acrylic paint, and colored pencils. Berson recalls: Working with these faded old photos was like seeing them as ghosts---I came to feel that reconstructing their faces was somehow giving their lives back. When I was working on the face of one 19-year-old young man, Benjamin Kurtz, I worried about whether I was getting his eyes exactly right. But then I thought, ’There is no one alive who knows what Benjamin’s eyes looked like; there is no record of him beyond that tiny image in an old newspaper the day after he died. I am honoring him by giving my understanding of his face to the world.”

All the images were then printed on fabric and sewn together. The quilt also includes a list of all the victims’ names, texts of beloved labor songs, and an assortment of American voices on the rights of workers. The Triangle Fire, and the memorial quilt, represents one appalling moment in history, but the fire drew a far-reaching, effective reform response across America. That is the history we must keep alive, for the sake of every working person throughout the world..”

One hundred years after Triangle, on 24th November 2012, there was fire at the Tazreen garment factory in Bangladesh, which took the lives of 137 workers. It was almost an exact repetition of the Triangle story. When the fire erupted, the factory gates were kept closed. Workers were trapped in the fire. Some lost their lives jumping from 8th floor. There were rows of dead bodies as burnt as charcoal the whole night, kept on the veranda of the nearby school. Relatives and friends cried their hearts out but couldn’t recognize the disfigured bodies of their dear ones. The later events were also similar to those that had happened 100 years back.

Delays in compensation excuses that devalued the workers, lives, the mockery of justice. After a short stay in jail, the owner, Delwar, was simply released. The next year, Rana Plaza in Savar collapsed. In violation of regulations, a six-storied foundation was expanded to ten storeys. When cracks appeared in the walls, the workers were afraid to go back to work in the death trap. But they were forced to by the combined effort of the building owner and Jubo League leader Rana, the factory owners, and administrative officers.

That morning the building collapsed, causing over one thousand deaths and injuring many others. Dead bodies rotted and decayed beneath the rubble and became unidentifiable. To this day, people find the bones and skulls of dead workers in the factory site. Compensation had not been given even one and half years after the incidence. Only 22 crore of the money out of 127 crores given to the Prime Minister’s fund have been used. Funds are sitting idle. The culprits are facing a slow trial. In the past, there have been many collapses of buildings and fire incidents. Tazreen and Rana Plaza only prove that the situation has not changed much. The very moment Berson and others were crafting the memorial quilt to raise concern over workplace conditions, two of the deadliest ever tragedies took place in Bangladesh. There was a great outcry all over the world over the destitution of Bangladeshi workers and the inhuman working conditions.

The situation encouraged Berson to sew another memorial quilt with photographs of Tazreen and Rana Plaza. In this sense the quilt for Bangladesh grew out of the Triangle memorial Quilt.. As both of the incidents took place recently, a lot of pictures of the workers were easily available. Many were collected from the posters hung by searching relatives. Berson kept these images as she received them, ragged, creased, at times faded. As with the Triangle quilt, many volunteers worked to create the quilt for Bangladesh. The Triangle inferno caused much stir in New York and America, and as a result many legal measures and institutions were developed to monitor workplace conditions. But in the case of Bangladesh the protesting workers were dispersed and were lost in the labyrinths of global capitalism. “What we’ve done,” says Berson, “is exported tragedy.” Although they keep the line of production endlessly, workers of the developing world including Bangladesh work under brutal, inhumane, unsafe conditions. Berson’s quilts have been exhibited in many American cities including New York. She hopes that these quilts will elicit empathy among the viewers for the humanity, beauty, and fragility shared by the dead youths. At the same time they can strengthen the sense of moral kinship and responsibility among people all over the world.