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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

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Documentaries highlight struggle for worker’s rights

Tags: Arts
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New York policemen watch a fire consuming a Manhattan garment factory in 1911. Corpses of some of the victims lie on the sidewalk.

The Jewish Film Society is presenting two documentaries on Oct. 14 that highlight the struggle of American Jewish immigrants to improve their lives.

At Home in Utopia, by Michael Goldman, focuses on efforts by Jewish garment workers in New York City to build and operate a co-operatively owned apartment building in the Bronx.

Triangle: Remembering the Fire, by Daphne Pinkerson, recalls the catastrophic blaze in Manhattan in 1911 that killed 146 women, many of whom were recent arrivals from eastern Europe, in a garment factory.

Both documentaries are strong and emphatic.

At Home in Utopia takes us back to the 1920s, when 700 Jewish families pooled their resources to build the United Workers Cooperative Colony, popularly known as the “Coops.” They banded together to build a “heaven on earth” at a time when the co-operative movement was at its height in the United States.

The “Coops” gave them everything they had previously lacked: green spaces, gardens, children’s play areas and space for recreational activities.


The “Coops” was by no means the only co-operative community in the city. Farband Houses were built by Labor Zionists, while Sholem Aleichem Houses were constructed by Yiddishists. The “Coops,” however, was probably the most grassroots and member-driven co-operative of the lot.

The “Coops” gave its members, which mainly consisted of communists, the opportunity to practice utopian ideals in the quest for a just society. They invited African Americans to join their co-operative in an era when racial injustice was rampant and segregation was taken for granted. And, threatened by insolvency as the Depression deepened, they pressed for mortgage relief laws.

The co-operative idea was battered by a number of events, notably the Soviet Union’s non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany in 1939, and eventually the “Coops” had to sell out to private interests.

But as the film suggests, the co-operative concept is still alive and well in the Big Apple.

On March 25, 1911, tragedy struck when a raging fire engulfed a new building housing the Triangle Waist Company, which manufactured shirtwaists for women.

Triangle: Remembering the Fire recounts the disaster that changed the face of labour relations in the United States.

The women who worked in the factory, which was owned by Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, were subjected to brutal working conditions. There was no real regard for workers’ safety.

A few months before the fire, garment workers in in New York City went on strike, demanding better pay and more humane conditions. Weathering the strike, Harris and Blanck refused to recognize union-certified employees.

When the fire broke out, more than 60 people managed to escape, but workers on the ninth floor were unable to flee. The exit door was shut tight. There were few, if any, fire escapes. Firefighters’ ladders could reach only up to the sixth floor.

In desperation, 90 or so frightened women jumped to their deaths, while the remainder of the victims were burned to death.

“This shouldn’t have happened,” says a descendant of one of the hapless victims.

Grief turned to rage as survivors and their supports demanded a reckoning. Harris and Blanck were charged with manslaughter, but a smart lawyer acquitted them.

Nonetheless, the Triangle fire was a turning point, a defining moment, in American history.

As one commentator observes, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal really started in 1911 as a succession of new laws, and codes were enacted to protect workers from rapacious bosses and the possibility of fire.

In short, the Triangle fire burned a hole in America’s conscience and ushered in a new dawn.

Screenings are at 4 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.

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