Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

100th Anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

March 25, 2011 <<I co-produced this show>>




JUAN GONZALEZ: Today marks the centennial anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. It was the deadliest workplace accident in New York City’s history and a seminal moment for American labor. On March 25th, 1911, nearly 150 garment workers, mostly young immigrant women, died after a fire broke out at the Triangle Factory near Washington Square Park.

Only a year before the lethal fire, the garment workers of the city had protested for shorter hours, better pay, safer work conditions and the right to unionize. Tired of toiling for 13 hours a day for as little as 13 cents an hour, the workers called for a strike, emerging as leaders in what became the largest women’s labor walkout in American history. The factory owners hired thugs to suppress their action, but in the 11th week of the strike, the owners finally agreed to higher wages and shorter hours. They drew the line, however, at a union. Denied any collective bargaining rights, the Triangle workers were powerless to change the abysmal conditions in their factory: inadequate ventilation, lack of safety precautions and fire drills—and locked doors.

AMY GOODMAN: When a lit cigarette or match ignited a fire on the eighth floor of the building, flames spread quickly and trapped the women in a deadly inferno. Today we spend the hour looking back at the fire and its significance 100 years later.

We’re going to begin with an excerpt of a radio piece I produced 25 years ago, in 1986, along with Kathy Dobie. It was then the 75th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

PAULINE PEPE: I worked right near where the fire was. There was cutters there. They were cutting the material. And as soon as they were just going out, it was time to go home. It was 4:00 on Saturday.

AMY GOODMAN: Pauline Pepe is a 94-year-old survivor of the Triangle fire.

PAULINE PEPE: I saw the fire in the tables, where they were all full with lingerie material, you know, and that had come up in a flame. When I saw that, I ran out. I went to the door that was closed. I didn’t know that was closed. I went there, knocked on the door. Closed. I just stood there ’til they opened it. Forty people going down the steps, we all tumbling one right after another. And I saw people throwing themselves from the window. And as soon as we went down, we couldn’t get out, because the bodies were coming down. It was terrible.

KATHY DOBIE: The women that died that late afternoon were young Jewish and Italian immigrants. When the fire broke out, they tried to escape down the stairs but found the doors had been locked. The owners believed that, given the chance, workers would sneak out with stolen material, and union organizers would sneak in.

AMY GOODMAN: Some of the women climbed onto the single fire escape. It collapsed. As onlookers watched, women fell nine stories to the sidewalk below. Inside the factory, the fire spread quickly, and with no exit left to them, the women climbed through the windows and leapt to their death.

While some union members walked in the vigil, others took buses to a Brooklyn cemetery, where seven unidentified Triangle victims lie buried. Union members paid their respects and read the stone marker above the women’s graves.

MONTAGE OF VOICES: “In sympathy and sorry, citizens of New York raise this monument over the grave of unidentified women and children who, with 139 others, perished by fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, Washington Place, March 25th, 1911.”

JUAN GONZALEZ: When the women realized the building was on fire, some rushed toward the open stairwell, but smoke and flames obscured their path. Hundreds of horrified onlookers watched as desperate factory workers leaped from the ninth floor windows, engulfed by flames. This is an excerpt from the new documentary Triangle Fire that aired on PBS’sAmerican Experience. It features dramatic readings of eyewitnesses of the fire.

NARRATOR: It had been less than five minutes since the first alarm, but more than a thousand people had crowded around the Asch Building. They watched as the firemen raised their ladders to their full extension. They barely reached the sixth floor, 30 feet shy of the trapped Triangle workers.

EYEWITNESS 1: [read by Frank Pando] People began to holler, “Raise the ladders! Raise the ladders!” We had the ladders up.

WILLIAM GUNN SHEPHERD: [read by Michael Daly] One girl climbed under the window sash. Those behind her tried to hold her back. Then she dropped into space.

EYEWITNESS 2: [read by Joe Lisi] I saw groups of women embracing each other and leaping to the sidewalk. The firemen were helpless. The nets were ripped from their hands. Many stooped and picked up the nets again with their hands bleeding.

WILLIAM GUNN SHEPHERD: [read by Michael Daly] The last workers were trapped against the blackened windows, burning to death before our very eyes. The glass they were pressed against shattered. Down came the bodies in the shower, burning, smoking, flaming bodies with disheveled hair trailing upward.

EYEWITNESS 1: [read by Frank Pando] The bodies lay there on the sidewalk, three or four high, burning. And we had to play the hoses on them.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Thanks to PBS’s American Experience for footage from the film Triangle Fire, which you can watch online at pbs.org.

UAN GONZALEZ: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire unleashed public outrage and forced government action. Within three years, more than 36 new state laws had been passed on quality of workplace conditions. The landmark legislation gave New Yorkers the most comprehensive workplace safety laws in the country and became a model for the nation.

AMY GOODMAN: Today, events and processions are planned across New York City and across the country to mark this historic anniversary.

We’re joined here in the studio by three guests. We’re beginning with Steve Fraser, author, editor, historian of labor. Fraser’s many publications include the award-winning book Labor Will Rule: Sidney Hillman and the Rise of American Labor. The book won the Philip Taft Prize for the best book in labor history. He currently teaches at New York University.

Talk about the significance of this fire today, exactly how it happened and what it launched.

STEVE FRASER: Well, the fire—there’s a straight line, really, that runs from the fire right through to the New Deal, the labor legislation reform of that era, the welfare state, and the creation of industrial unionism and the right to organize in the 1930s. And there’s a line that runs from that period to our current moment, which is determined, in part, by an assault on all of those democratic achievements that we see going on in Madison, Wisconsin, throughout the industrial Midwest, even bizarrely in Maine, where the governor of Maine has actually proposed erasing that history by obliterating the names of some of the heroines that organized the garment industry and were present at the fire—Rose Schneiderman, particularly, who was a key militant, a member of the Women’s Trade Union League, and of course Frances Perkins, who became—who was a witness to the fire and became Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor. There are conference rooms in Augusta named after those two women, who the current Republican governor proposes to remove, because he considers those names not neutral enough. So there’s a—we’re living that history even today.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go back in time just after break, and then we’re going to come forward to look at what this means in this country and around the world. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Today, a Democracy Now!special, on this hundredth anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Ballad of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire” by Bev Grant, on this hundredth anniversary of the fire that took the lives of 146 workers, just down the road from where we’re sitting today in New York. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan Gonzalez. This is Democracy Now! [...]

Our guest, Steve Fraser, an author, editor, historian of labor. Among his many publications, the award-winning book Labor Will Rule: Sidney Hillman and the Rise of American Labor.

We are also joined by Annelise Orleck. She’s a professor of history at Dartmouth College, author of Common Sense and a Little Fire: Working Class Women’s Activism in the 20th Century U.S.

And Charles Kernaghan is the director of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, formerly the National Labor Committee.

Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Steve, before the break, we were talking about the straight line from that fire to today. But I’d like to also go back a year before the fire, because there was a huge—as we mentioned in the lede, a huge and important strike of thousands of garment workers, largely women, that really had a major impact, and then several of the—and the Shirtwaist Factory fire workers were part of that movement. Could you talk about that strike and its importance?

STEVE FRASER: Yes, that’s known—was known then, and has been known since, as “the Uprising of the 20,000.” And in fact there were probably well more than 20,000 garment workers, largely women garment workers, involved in that strike, which broke out in 1909. And actually, the 1909 strike is itself the culmination of a chronic series of strikes in the garment industry stemming way back into the 1890s, in protest against the miserable conditions of work, the low wages, child labor, the lack of any sanitary or health protections. Fires were common. They had occurred in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory before the tragedy of 1911.

And so, there was an ongoing process of trying to organize the industry, unionize the industry, which comes to a head in 1909, and enlists the sympathies of a broad spectrum of middle-class New Yorkers, as well, particularly the Women’s Trade Union League, the Consumers League, women from the suffrage movement, who become involved in assisting the strikers, appearing on the picket lines, bailing them out of jail, trying to bring publicity to what’s going on as the police attack the strikers, judges throw them in jail and so on. And so, it’s a monumental movement, and a partly successful one, successful insofar as the industry is compelled to improve some of the conditions of work, but not a victory insofar as there’s no blanket recognition of the union emerging out of that strike.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, of course, that’s—

STEVE FRASER: And certainly, not at Triangle then.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And that’s the lesson for today, because, really, without the union recognition and the right to collectively bargain your conditions of work, the workers had no say over what was—

STEVE FRASER: That’s exactly right.

JUAN GONZALEZ:—how the factory was operated.

STEVE FRASER: Yes, without that power, you are always in jeopardy of losing whatever temporary gains you’ve won.

AMY GOODMAN: Annelise Orleck, explain what happened on that fateful day, on March 25th, 1911. Why were these workers locked out and in?

ANNELISE ORLECK: Well, the owners of the Triangle company, Harris and Blanck, claimed that they a problem with theft, and so they locked the door out of which most of the workers left to prevent—supposedly to prevent them from taking fabric and stealing from the company. Afterwards, when it came to trial, the owners admitted that the most they might possibly have lost was $15, $20 a year. So, that’s the number that ultimately cost all of those workers’ lives.

There were “no smoking” signs in the factory, but the cutters, who were kind of the elite in the shop, were known to ignore that, and perhaps one of them did. It’s not clear exactly what happened. But someone flicked an ash, and it caught in what was probably more than a ton of fabric scraps. There had been more than 100,000 shirtwaists made since the last time the manufacturers had cleaned scraps out of the shop. And the young women—it’s worth picking up on what Steve said—had been warning about those scraps. They had been warning about them for months. There were hundreds of complaints on file at the Women’s Trade Union League about the dangers of these factories and the likelihood that fire would start. And indeed, there had been a lethal fire in Newark, just a few months before the Triangle fire, that killed 26 young women and injured many others. So they were aware of this danger.

And what happened was even worse than they could have predicted. The fire spread through the grass linen out of which the fabric—out of which the shirtwaists were made. It was very flammable. And it spread so quickly and so horribly and with so much heat that there were actually skeletons of young women at their sewing machines, who were discovered after the fire. So some never made it away from their desks.

Others tried to leave. There were two doors to the factory. One was blocked by flames, the other one was probably locked. And that was the reason that so many were left with the horrible choice of either being—of perishing in fire or jumping out the window. Some of them rushed out onto the fire escape, about 25 of them. There were already people from the eighth floor on the fire escape. It collapsed. And that was the first terrible scene of death that New Yorkers witnessed from below.

But in a way, even more awful, if—you can’t judge these things, but—was this revelation that Frances Perkins later described, that what at first appeared to be fabric that the manufacturers were throwing out the window—people thought they were trying to save their good fabric—people soon realized were workers, young women, a few young men. And within a half-hour, many hundreds, if not thousands, on the street below had watched this carnage and really vividly experienced the terror.

In the aftermath, they experienced a different kind of terror, which was that the bodies of the young workers lay on the streets for several days as New Yorkers came by to try to identify their loved ones. And that makeshift morgue almost made the whole city feel like a makeshift morgue. Eventually it was moved to the 26th Street Pier. And again, for days, New Yorkers were treated to images of family members grieving, collapsing, coming out from having tried to identify their lost loved ones.

AMY GOODMAN: And who these women were?

ANNELISE ORLECK: Well, I think that’s the most important thing to remember, because there have been so many tragedies in the 20th century, the question is always: why has this one attracted so much attention? Why does it still move so many people?

These women were the strikers of 1909, 1910, and they had gotten a lot of coverage in the press. And they had been quoted, sometimes 15-, 16-, 17-year-old girls talking about their constitutional rights and their rights to picket without being beaten and marching on City Hall with banners in Yiddish and Italian and English, saying, “We are not slaves” and “Abolish slavery.”

And they were saucy. The management had attempted to put prostitutes on the line to sully the reputations of these girls. And instead of them saying, “Oh, no, no, no. We’re not prostitutes. Don’t mistake us,” they said, “Better to be a streetwalker than a scab. It’s an honest profession.”

So they had attracted the attention and the affection of the city. And as Steve pointed out, many people who had not previously been sympathetic to labor began to shift their views. Even the New York Times, which had been staunchly anti-labor, began to cover the strikers with a little bit more sympathy. Partly it was the violence that was leveled against them. The leader of the strike, Clara Lemlich, had six ribs broken by clubs during the course of the strike. There were girls who were dragged off with bloodied heads in bandages. And at first that didn’t win sympathy. One judge, when a girl was dragged before him with a head covered in blood, said, “You are on strike against God and nature, and women shouldn’t be out parading themselves like this.”

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what happened to the two owners of the factory, and what kind of penalties did they receive?

ANNELISE ORLECK: The trial was an interesting trial, because it’s the flip side of the kind of heroic imagery that you saw of these young women before the fire, during the strike. The trial was really an exercise in putting them on trial, in a sense. They were described as prone to panic, hysterical. Their deaths were basically attributed to that hysteria and that panic. It was said that they had rushed to the door and blocked the door, and that’s why—

AMY GOODMAN: Who were they?

ANNELISE ORLECK: Hmm?

AMY GOODMAN: Who were they?

ANNELISE ORLECK: Who were the girls?

AMY GOODMAN: The workers—the owners.

ANNELISE ORLECK: Harris and Blanck, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck. They were German Jews. They had been in the country a little while longer than the workers, which was typical of these garment shops, although this one was bigger. They certainly had more capital to invest than, you know, the owners of little sweatshops, which were kind of fly by night, rented by the week. But that said, they still had family working in the shops. They lost family in the shops, and they lost family in the fire. So, they were not completely removed from the garment trade themselves. Nevertheless, they hired a very flashy New York attorney, Max Stoyer, who was one of these celebrity defense attorneys. And he—

JUAN GONZALEZ: And he attempted to blame the victims for panicking?

ANNELISE ORLECK: He did. And he accused them of perjury. You know, he soft-pedaled it. He said they couldn’t remember, maybe. They were so hysterical that they couldn’t remember what had happened to them. He brought on a wave of witnesses who had worked with the company at different times and said they had seen the door open—not that day, but that they had come in and out of the door. And one juror later said they believed the door was locked, but the defense attorney had introduced enough reasonable doubt. And interestingly enough, even the prosecutor called the girls less intelligent than the norm.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to someone you just mentioned: Frances Perkins. This really launched her. One of the witnesses of the Triangle fire’s deadly impact was Frances Perkins, the future Secretary of Labor for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. At the time, she was 30 years old. Perkins said the fire was, quote, “a never-to-be-forgotten reminder of why I had to spend my life fighting conditions that could permit such a tragedy.” I want to go to a clip from 1964 of Frances Perkins talking about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

FRANCES PERKINS: Everybody who jumped—and a good many did jump from the ninth and 10th floors—was killed. And the other people who died were all people who were burned or smothered by the smoke in the factory itself.

This made a terrible impression on the people of the state of New York. I can’t begin to tell you how disturbed the people were everywhere. It was as though we had all done something wrong. It shouldn’t have been. We were sorry.Mea culpa, mea culpa. We didn’t want it that way; we hadn’t intended to have 147 girls and boys killed in a factory. It was a terrible—it was a terrible thing for the people of the City of New York and the state of New York to face.

I remember that Al Smith—the action happened on a Saturday. I happened to have been visiting a friend in the park on the other side of the park, and we heard the engines, and we heard the screams and rushed out and rushed over where we could see the trouble was. We could this building from Washington Square, and the people had just begun to jump when we got there. They had been holding until that time, standing in the windowsills, crowding, being crowded by others behind them, and the fire pressing closer and closer, the smoke closer and closer.

Finally, the men were trying to put up—trying to get out this thing that the firemen carry with them, a net, to catch people if they do jump. And they were trying to get that out, and they couldn’t wait any longer. I mean, they began to jump. This is when the window was too crowded, and they were jumping. They hit the sidewalk. The net broke. It was a terrible distance, and the weight of the bodies was so great at the speed at which they were traveling that they broke through the net. And every one of them was killed. Everybody who jumped was killed. And it was a horrifying spectacle.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Frances Perkins in 1964. Well, Kirstin Downeywrote a book about Frances Perkins called The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience. And in 2009, I asked her to talk about Frances Perkins and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, how it really helped to shape the New Deal.

KIRSTIN DOWNEY: I was very taken by the fact that this young woman—she was only 30 years old when she saw the fire—witnessed a terrible spectacle. Now, thousands of people were dying in workplace fires all over the country at that time, but this particular fire is viewed by a lot of New Yorkers, but it’s also viewed by this very dynamic young woman. She decides—it galvanizes her. She says this has to change.

She’s a descendant of Revolutionary War patriots. She has a great sense of moral responsibility for the country being the kind of place that it should be. And she thinks that what’s happening to these factory workers is just wrong.

Teddy Roosevelt selects her to be executive director of the—executive secretary of the Committee on Safety. And I found that in documents at the Library of Congress. Even a lot of Teddy Roosevelt scholars didn’t know that. And she leads the charge. She does it in her characteristic way of making alliances with unlikely partners. You see her, of course, gathering all the idealists together, all the people that she describes as looking in shock and terror, but she also finds ways to reach out to the insurance companies to convince them that fire hazards are something that they should be considering a financial issue. She gets insurance company executives to talk to real estate owners.

And she is instrumental in creating a legislative committee in the state of New York that holds fact-finding hearings all around the state to discuss hazards of all kinds. Out of that comes much legislation and things that have had effects on all of us today: occupancy limitations, fire exits, even removing trash, flammable trash, every night from workplaces. These all came from Frances Perkins’s work in New York at that time.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Kirstin Downey, author of The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience. That’s where we’re going now: FDR.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yeah, Steve, what about that? What about her impact on all of the legislation that occurred during the Roosevelt era that really was the heyday of rights, really, for the American worker?

STEVE FRASER: Yeah, exactly right. Frances Perkins is probably the greatest Secretary of Labor we’ve ever had, and she deserves a great deal of the credit. And the inspiration comes from these women who died that day.

But I must say that there would be no New Deal legislation, there wouldn’t be a Fair Labor Standards Act passed in 1938, establishing minimum wages and maximum hours, abolishing child labor, there wouldn’t have been a Wagner Act, ensuring the right to collective bargaining, there wouldn’t have been Social Security and unemployment insurance and welfare, had not the garment unions emerged out of this fire and strike and produced what was called, in the 1920s, the New Unionism, which prefigured all of the New Deal, a unionism which fought for health insurance, unemployment insurance, low-cost cooperative housing, built a multi-ethnic, multi-religious industrial union. And without the industrial unions of the 1930s, the CIO, it’s hard to conceive that Roosevelt and Frances Perkins, despite their good intentions and indefatigable labors, would have achieved what they had achieved. And that’s why I think today we need to commemorate, but also celebrate, in an odd sort of way, these women. They died, and they died—and, by dying, achieved this kind of industrial democracy, which, without what they had been involved in, wouldn’t have happened.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to continue this discussion after break. Charles [sic.] Fraser teaches at New York University, Annelise Orleck at Dartmouth—Steve Fraser.

STEVE FRASER: OK.

AMY GOODMAN: Annelise Orleck, who, by the way—whose grandmother worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Annelise is a historian at Dartmouth College. And we’ll also be joined by Charles Kernaghan after break, the director of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, to talk about where we are today, how we can be showing today a video of another fire that took place just a few months ago, workers in Bangladesh jumping to their deaths as they were trying to make clothes for U.S. companies. This is Democracy Now! Stay with us.

AMY GOODMAN: “Mayn Rue Platz (My Resting Place),” Corinne Reif of The Mór Rigan’s Wake singing a modern Yiddish song set to images of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that took place March 25th, 1911, a hundred years ago today. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan Gonzalez. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, to mark the hundredth anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, the Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights has published a new report titled “Triangle Returns: Who Will Protect Today’s Working Girl?” The Institute also produced this video to accompany the report. It’s narrated by Charles Kernaghan.

CHARLES KERNAGHAN: On December 14th, 2010, just three months shy of the hundredth anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York, a fire broke out at the Hameem factory in Bangladesh on the outskirts of Dhaka. It was an 11-story building. It was lunchtime. There were workers in the cafeteria on the 11th floor, and they started to smell smoke. They didn’t panic. They did just what the workers did at Triangle: they started to go towards the exit. The workers tried to get out the exit, and the flames were so great and the smoke was so dense that they had to retreat. They ran through the cafeteria to the other side of the building, the west side, and they tried to go out the fire exits, and the exit doors were locked. They were trapped.

Those workers jumped off the top of the building from the 11th floor. They leapt off the building for the same reason, so that their parents could have their bodies and they could be mourned correctly and they could be buried correctly. Workers on the ground thought these were bales of clothing that were being thrown out the windows.

It’s word for word the exact same thing. At the Triangle factory, the exit door was locked. The exit door was locked at Hameem, a hundred years later at the factory fire at Hameem in Bangladesh. And do you know what the workers told us? They said that, often, management locks the exit gates during a fire so that the garments can’t be stolen. Twenty-nine workers were killed. Over a hundred workers were injured, 36 of them seriously and were hospitalized. The management paid the families of the deceased workers $2,080 as compensation. That’s what a life is worth in the developing world now.

This is going on, still, in the global economy today. Not one change. In fact, it gets worse. In Triangle they made 14 cents an hour. But when you adjust that for inflation, that 14 cents an hour in 1911 is worth $3.18 today. The workers at the Hameem factory in Bangladesh on the outskirts of Dhaka, they’re making, at the top wage, 28 cents an hour. That means that their earning, their wages in Bangladesh today, are one-tenth of what wages were in the United States 100 years ago. We are racing to the bottom.

AMY GOODMAN: Charles Kernaghan, director of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, formerly the National Labor Committee, now based in Pittsburgh.

Talk more about this, Charlie. Those images are incredible.

CHARLES KERNAGHAN: Well, it’s eerily similar to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. And the workers in Triangle were working 14 hours a day. At the Hameem factory in Bangladesh, they work 12 to 14 hours a day, but they work seven days a week. The Triangle workers got one day a week off.

The owner of the factory, a very powerful man, he just—after the fire, he said that it was sabotage on the part of the workers. He owns a newspaper, and he owns a television station. So, without the slightest bit of evidence, he just says it was sabotage.

And so, so different from the Triangle factory, there’s been no investigation. There’s been—nothing comes out of it. The workers have just died. In Bangladesh, the workers—last summer, we were there in July—they went out on protests for a wage increase. They were begging, demanding for 35 cents an hour. Imagine that, Walmart and Gap and the rest of the companies. They were begging, demanding, marching.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, Walmart and Gap?

CHARLES KERNAGHAN: Well, because these are all the labels that produce there. In this particular factory, it was Gap children’s, toddler’s pants that were being sewn in the factory. They accounted for 50 percent of the production. Four hundred thousand pairs of Gap pants were burned in the fire. So, Gap was a major player. So was Phillips-Van Heusen and JCPenney, some Abercrombie & Fitch and a little bit of Target. But what—so these were all the major labels produced there.

Bangladesh right now exports $4 billion worth of apparel to the United States each year, and they’re the third-largest exporter. Ninety-seven percent of all garments are made offshore now. So, in other words, what we’ve done is we’ve taken the sweatshops from, you know, 1911, and we’ve just moved them to Bangladesh.

Now, when the workers in Bangladesh started to fight back—there’s three-and-a-half million workers, garment workers, 80 percent of them young women. When they fought back and they demanded a 35-cent-an-hour wage, which any corporation could easily pay, they were attacked by the police. They were beaten, they were clubbed, they were shot at with rubber bullets, they were hosed down with these very powerful water cannons, which just swept the women off the streets. And they put a dye in the water so they could be arrested later on, so they couldn’t get the dye off their clothing or their bodies. And this is—we are racing so fast backwards in the global economy that right now these workers, you know, don’t stand a chance.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Charlie, I want to ask you specifically, because you mentioned this question of all of the production being sent offshore. We’re constantly told that we’re living in a post-industrial society and that manual labor is no longer the thing that drives the economy, when the reality is that there are more industrial workers in the world today than there ever were. It’s just that they’re not as much in the advanced countries, and basically the worst aspects of capitalism have been outsourced offshore to these other—to these other countries. And yet, we believe that we live in a post-industrial society, and we act as if all the goods that we have around us just somehow appeared and weren’t made by someone somewhere in some factory, as you say, with conditions even worse than they were here in the early 20th century in the United States.

CHARLES KERNAGHAN: And what’s so incredible is that it’s going on in broad daylight. That struggle in Bangladesh with three-and-a-half million garment workers, 80 percent of them young women, that may have been the largest social justice struggle in the history of the world on the part of women, but no one even knew about it. It’s out of sight, it’s out of mind. And this is going on in China. It’s going on in Vietnam.

It’s—right now, we’re calling for legislation that would say to the U.S. companies, because we can only deal here with the United States, that you can make your products anywhere in the world—we believe in fair trade—but if that product is made by a child or if it’s made by a young woman forced to work 15 hours a day, seven days a week, who’s stripped of their rights and paid pennies an hour and doesn’t have the right to organize, that product will not be able to enter the United States, and that product won’t be sold in the United States, and that product won’t be exported from the United States. And so, we’ve introduced some legislation in the Congress—in the 110th Congress we introduced it. We ended up getting 175 co-sponsors in the House and 26 in the Senate, including at that time Senator Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. And then it just ran out of steam. The companies saw what we were doing and moved in, and the thing was shut down. But if we don’t take some control over the global economy, we’re all going to be working for $3.18 an hour, without a doubt, with no benefits. I mean, we’re going downhill so fast, it’s remarkable.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Steve Fraser, at the beginning of this broadcast, you talked about the protests in the United States right now, this issue of public unions. I wanted to play a clip of the Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s comments on March 11th, when he signed the anti-union legislation law. He told reporters he hopes Wisconsin will inspire other states to pass similar laws.

GOV. SCOTT WALKER: For us, we’re doing this to lead the way in our own state, to get Wisconsin working again. But if along the way we help lead a movement across the state to pass true fiscal reform, true budgetary reform, to ultimately inspire others across this country, state by state, and in our federal government, inspire others to stand up and make the tough decisions so that they too make a commitment to the future, so that our children, in all states and across the country, ultimately don’t have to face the dire consequences we face, because previous leaders have failed to stand up and lead, I think that’s a good thing and a thing we’re worthy—we’re willing to accept as part of our legacy.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Steve Fraser, the significance of this?

STEVE FRASER: Yeah, this is a call to arms, and it’s a call to arms that’s been going on now for some time and has become more militant of late, fueled by the energy of the Tea Party. And that is to sort of repeal the 20th century, to do what the Maine governor proposed to do, to erase all that history and all those accomplishments, and particularly to eliminate that critical right to engage in collective bargaining, and to return to the Dark Ages, to this Darwinian capitalism that existed at the time of the fire and that exists all over the world today, as Charles was just describing.

So it’s an extremely dangerous moment in the country’s history right now, because what he’s proposing we do—and what has already been going on here in America—is a kind of auto-cannibalism, a kind of eating away at the welfare of working people, that’s gone on for the last generation, so that, soon enough, we, too, will be making exactly what those Bangladesh workers will be making. The safety net will be shredded and then—and eviscerated and be gone. And the general level of well-being in this country will be destroyed, if we don’t now mobilize, as people in Madison and elsewhere have begun to do, against this assault.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Steve, I know I mentioned this earlier, but I’d like to focus on this, because often it’s not fully understood that—what collective bargaining represents, because I’ve worked in both union and non-union places. And in a non-union place, it’s basically you, and whatever the boss says, that’s what happens. You have no rights—

STEVE FRASER: Yeah.

JUAN GONZALEZ:—in the normal workplace, other than the basic federal rights that are guaranteed by Congress. But you basically have no right to bargain about how your labor is going to be used, what kind of conditions you’re going to work under, you know, what kind of increases you’re going to have, whether you’re even going to have your job, and—so that collective bargaining, in my mind, really represents a form of democracy in the workplace.

STEVE FRASER: Yes.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Without it, you have dictatorship in the workplace.

STEVE FRASER: Yes, you have industrial autocracy. You have what you had back at the time of the fire, where there’s—where you’re employed at will, and the sanctity of private property allows the employer to treat you in any way he chooses to, whether that’s about firing and hiring, whether it’s about the rate at which you work, the amount at which you work, what he pays you, the hours of work. And it means you have no voice, no voice in all of those circumstances that determine your fate. So it’s a fundamental democratic right and human right. Collective bargaining has been understood that way through a good part of the 20th century because of the Triangle fire and what followed it. And we can’t lose it. It’s too precious.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Annelise Orleck, you are a professor of women’s history and immigrants’ history. This is about women and immigrants, the lessons we learn from Triangle and where we stand today.

ANNELISE ORLECK: And I hope that this discussion around Triangle and our evocation of the strong spirits of these young women, who fought for their rights before Triangle, who died at the fire, and who continued to fight afterwards, will help us to humanize the women in Bangladesh, the nurses in Madison, Wisconsin, the domestic workers in New York City, all of whom we have a little bit of a harder time giving full blood and flesh and voice to. And that’s my deepest hope about this anniversary of the fire, is that it will allow us to bring those voices into the conversation.

AMY GOODMAN: And where we stand in immigrant rights issues today?

ANNELISE ORLECK: Yes, because, of course, the hiring of undocumented workers in the United States in low-wage work allows employers to have complete free will over the conditions under which people labor. And some of the conditions under which domestic workers, in particular, who are so often undocumented labor, are equivalent to slavery. I have had stories of people literally shackled in the basement and, you know, people forced to work 14 hours a day, not in Bangladesh, but in Manhattan. And so, I think that there’s a direct relationship between the rights of immigrants, to come here and to be protected by American labor legislation and minimum wage laws and maximum hours and safety laws, and the future of American labor and the prevention of future Triangles.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Charlie, I’d like to ask you, since you’ve—during both the first Bush administration, the second Bush administration and the Clinton administrations, you exposed what American companies were doing, especially with their subcontractors, their producers abroad. What’s been going on with the Obama administration in terms of what kind of safeguards it’s tried to negotiate in any of these free trade agreements that it’s been—it’s continuing to push forward? Do you see any difference under Obama than what’s happened in the past?

CHARLES KERNAGHAN: A slight difference. But, for example, the U.S.-Jordan Free Trade Agreement descended into human trafficking. They stripped guest workers of their passports. They were treated like slaves. They weren’t paid. They were working 16 hours a day. And all the garments were coming in duty-free to the United States or Guatemala. It’s out of control, in terms of labor rights and in terms of paying the workers decent wages—and legal wages. It’s happening all throughout the U.S.-Central America Free Trade Agreement. So, the improvements have been very slight. But a lot of people are putting a lot of pressure on the administration to get off their seats and get up and start to do something concrete.

AMY GOODMAN: And the response of companies like the Gap when it comes to a fire in Bangladesh?

CHARLES KERNAGHAN: Well, you know, the American people have to understand that this economy also belongs to the American people and not just the corporations. So, right now the corporations have all the laws they need to protect their products. They have intellectual property rights and copyright laws, so if you make a knockoff of Barbie Doll or something like that or Microsoft, you’re going to go to jail. You’re never going to work again. You’ll go to prison. They’ll shut you down. But when we said to the companies, we said, “Look, you have laws to protect, you know, your products,” they said, “Yes, we need a level playing field on the global economy.” So we said, “OK, can’t we have similar laws to protect the rights of the human beings, the 16-year-old woman in Indonesia who make Barbie Doll? Can’t we protect her rights, as well?” They said, “No, that would be an impediment to free trade.” So the American people allow corporations to have laws to protect their trademarks and their products, but we can’t have laws to protect the rights of human beings. Until that changes, until there’s legislation, we’re going to just be in this race to the bottom.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you all very much for being with us on this extremely important day, this hundredth anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire: Charles Kernaghan, director of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, formerly the National Labor Committee, now based in Pittsburgh; Annelise Orleck, professor at Dartmouth College, author of Common Sense and a Little Fire: Working Class Women’s Activism in the 20th Century U.S.; and thank you so much to Steve Fraser, author, editor, historian of labor, among his many books,Labor Will Rule: Sidney Hillman and the Rise of American Labor. The book won the Philip Taft Prize. He teaches at New York University.

Copyright © 2009 Journalist Deena Guzder
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