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    Posted April 18, 2011

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The Chalk Project and the Triangle Fire Memorial

by Joanne Borts

One hundred years ago, on March 25, 1911, New Yorkers witnessed the worst workplace disaster in its history before 9/11. A fire broke out on the 8th floor of the Triangle Waist Company, one block east of Washington Square. Workers ran to the fire escape, but it collapsed. The critical exit on the 9th floor was locked - a precaution taken by the sweatshop owners to prevent theft. People on the street watched in horror as desperate workers clung to the windows while the flames licked at their backs. When the fire trucks finally arrived, their ladders only reached as far as the 6th floor, so many made the devastating decision to jump. 146 garment workers - most of them women, most of them Jewish and Italian immigrants, most of them under the age of 25 - perished.

From the ashes of this great tragedy rose the Labor movement.

"Chalk" is a public art project that was the brainchild of filmmaker Ruth Sergel. Each year on the March 25th anniversary of the Triangle Fire, volunteers fan out across New York City to inscribe - in chalk - the names and ages of the victims in front of their former homes. A flyer is posted near the names, detailing how the fire galvanized organized labor and the fight for social justice. I was introduced to this project in 2004 as a volunteer and advocate for the Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring, and this year I was given 2 names to inscribe:

Violet/Velye Schochet, 740 East 5th Street - 21 years old

Rose Mehl, 278 East 7th Street - 15 years old.

Several people stopped to watch. Others asked questions about the project. Most just stood quietly, wondering who these young women had been - and who they might have become. As I headed up to the memorial service, I saw where people had chalked the names of other victims. All over the streets of the Lower East Side, each name on the pavement told a story of loss… of senseless tragedy… of the sadness that overwhelmed a city. The similarities to the "missing" and "have you seen?" posters that papered New York after 9/11 were unmistakable.

The ceremony, held in front of the former Triangle factory, was preceded by a march through Greenwich Village by thousands of people, some carrying shirtwaists with sashes commemorating the names of women who died in the fire. It was chilling to see these 'ghosts' witness the culmination of the service: a fire truck ladder that reached only as high as the 6th floor.

As I stood with my fellow Equity members and our brother and sister unions, I was reminded that we also stand on the shoulders of generations of courageous women and men who risked everything they had for the future of the labor movement: A Better World. We owe them a debt of gratitude that we repay each day with our time and commitment to our Union.

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