2011 National Book Award Finalist,
Young People's Literature

Albert Marrin

Albert Marrin

Flesh & Blood So Cheap:
The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy

Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books

Interview by Eisa Nefertari Ulen

Eisa Ulen: In your nonfiction book Flesh and Blood So Cheap, you link the marginalized experiences of mostly Italian and Jewish immigrant sweatshop workers of the early 1900s with the experiences of mostly Asian immigrant sweatshop workers of the late 1900s.  One could make the case that undocumented workers doing all kinds of jobs throughout the United States are similarly exploited today. Does that mean that the reforms that were put in place after the Triangle Fire didn’t go far enough? What needs to be done to protect all workers, regardless of background, in this country right now?

Albert Marrin: The reforms of 1911-1912 were specific to New York, not notionwide, although they furnisted a model. Also, they applied specifically to fire safety and other job-safety issues. Over the years, legislation has expanded the areas of working-conditions regulation, and an entire government agency, the Department of Labor, deals with these and related  issues. Similarly, the Wagner Act of 1935, during the New Deal, gave unions the right to organize and strike. So, a comprehensive legal framework to protect workers is in place today. Thus, regardless of immigration status, the laws already on the books need to be enforced; and failure to do so brings contempt for law. Yet enforcement can be difficult because of the self-interest of powerful special interests: elected officials, unions, large-scale farmers, corporations.

EU: Your book concludes with descriptions of unsafe working conditions in Bangladeshi sweatshops that are strikingly similar to those at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory before the fire. Do you think we need an organized, international movement for workers’ rights, and, if so, are the similarities dispossessed workers face around the world strong enough to unite them? As you explain in your book, even African American women who were barred from regular employment in New York factories because of racial discrimination made the difficult decision to support striking Italians and Jews and not act as scabs. Could that kind of cohesion be achieved today, perhaps through the use of social media, or, would language, race, and nationality differences divide these workers and prevent an international coalition?

AM: There already exists an agency to protect workers' rights. It is the International Labor Organization (ILO), an arm of the United Nations. Its job is to address worker issues globally: wages, safety, child labor, forced labor, etc. However, though problems like child labor may be roughly similar, they arise from different cultures, with different histories and from different conditions. Thus, there is no universal, fits-all panacea for these problems. Solutions cannot usually be imposed from the outside; that is why interventionist "nation building" almost invariably falls short.  Also, governments may not look favorably on organized labor movements (or any popular movements) they cannot control. China comes to mind here.

EU: What do you think activists Rose Schneiderman and Clara Lemlich would think of the Occupy Wall Street Movement? What about the ladies of the Mink Coat Brigade?

AM: It is hard to read the minds of people who died decades ago. Rose and Clara came out of a European socialist and revolutionary tradition. Can that be said about Occupy Wall Street? Yet, I suppose, if they could have seen into the future thay might have said: "Those participating in the Wall Street protests are seeking to find a way for their voices to be heard about unfair conditions in their day. In our day, we sought the American Dream of equality of opportunity and the ability to rise through education and hard work; we wanted "Bread and Roses," a decent living and the chance to grow as persons. Today, as one Wall Street sign says, 'RIP American Dream.' In other words, they sense that the dream is slipping away due not only to an economic downturn, but to the corrupt marriage of money and politics. Yet, for all that, we learned that in our new country we had the inalienable right to express ourselves and organize our energies to bring about meaningful change. Today, too, we can use social media to link to one another and get our message across, though how effective that will be remains to be seen."

EU: One of the great achievements of your book is the vivid and detailed way you describe how “the other half lived” at the turn of the century, from the conditions in Europe that compelled so many to emigrate, to New York street life, family dynamics, and the everyday experiences of urban youth. What compelled you to write such a rich story of American life—and thus humanize the women and men who died on March 25, 1911?

AM: Writing is a serious business with me; it is my "calling," the thing I was born to do. Also, I have always been interested in how other people live and have lived; that is why I almost pursued a career in anthropology. Sometimes, my ideas for books are the natural outgrowth of books that I have already written. Sometimes, however, they come about in ways that are part of the mysteries of the human mind. They may come in dreams, or I may wake up in the morning with an idea. I can't explain how or why this happens. Perhaps the idea already lies beneath the level of consciousness, and sleep brings it to the surface.

EU: You conclude the chapter “A Stricken Conscience” with the many tributes to the Triangle Fire victims that take place annually in New York. What would be the best way for Americans all around the country to honor the legacy of Triangle?

AM: The way to honor the Triangle legacy is through humane, practical, ENFORCIBLE legislation that does not crush individual initiative and promotes the creation of good jobs.

Eisa Nefertari Ulen is the author of Crystelle Mourning, a novel described by The Washington Post as “a call for healing in the African American community from generations of hurt and neglect.” She is the recipient of a Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center Fellowship for Young African American Fiction Writers and a Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center Fellowship. Her essays, exploring topics ranging from Hip Hop to Muslim life in America post-9/11 to contemporary Black literature to the gap between the Civil Rights generation and Generation X, have been widely anthologized. Nominated by Essence magazine for a National Association of Black Journalists Award, she has contributed to numerous other publications, including The Washington Post, Ms., Health, Heart & Soul, Vibe, The Source, The Crisis, Black Issues Book Review, Quarterly Black Review of Books, TheRoot.com,TheDefendersOnline.com, TheGrio.com, and CreativeNonfiction.org. Ulen graduated from Sarah Lawrence College and earned a master’s degree from Columbia University. A founding member of Ringshout: A Place for Black Literature, she lives with her husband and son in Brooklyn. You can reach Eisa online and read her blog at: www.EisaUlen.com.