Browsing the blog archivesfor the day Monday, February 21st, 2011.

The Last Triangle Waist Factory Victims Identified


Nearly one hundred years ago, on March 25, 1911, a fire broke out in the Triangle Waist Factory near Washington Square, in Manhattan, killing 146 workers. Some of the workers leapt to their deaths from the 9th-floor sweatshop rather than be burned. The workers could not escape the fire because management had locked the doors to keep them from leaving early.

Six of the victims were so badly burned they could not be identified, and the six bodies were buried together in a cemetery on the border of Brooklyn and Queens. The New York Times reports today that a determined researcher has identified the six unknown victims — Max Florin, Fannie Rosen, Dora Evans, Josephine Cammarata, Maria Lauletti, and Concetta Prestifilippo. All six were immigrants in their teens or early 20s except for Maria Lauletti, who was 33.

“Waist,” by the way, refers to “shirtwaist,” the name of a popular style of ladies’ fashion at the time.

Many Americans have heard of this fire; what is less well known is that a couple of years before the fire, in 1909, a walkout by Triangle employees sparked a mass strike of New York’s garment workers that lasted for six weeks. As many as 32,000 striking workers, mostly women, took to the streets and adopted the slogan “We’d rather starve quick than starve slow.”

The power establishment was of course opposed to the strike. Police arrested strikers on any pretext; employers hired thugs to beat them. Eventually some employers conceded some improvements in wages and working conditions, although the Triangle Factory management made no concessions. They simply locked out the strikers and hired new immigrant workers, who would work as much as 12 hours a day for as little as $1.50 a week.

The fire shocked America, and it also shocked the New York legislature into passing some of the first workplace safety regulations in the country. Among the reformers pushing for protection for workers was Frances Perkins, who had watched the fire from the street. Perkins would be the Secretary of Labor in the Franklin Roosevelt Administration.

The fire also became a catalyst for union organizing, especially for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. It was only after the fire that garment workers in New York won the right to unionize.

Today, as the political Right in America is gripped with an insane compulsion to return the United States to the 19th century, we seem to be re-fighting issues thought to be settled many decades ago. The fight of the vilified public workers of Wisconsin is not not so much about wages and benefits, because the workers have offered to make concessions on wages and benefits. The fight ultimately is about the collective bargaining rights of all American workers, public and private.

Those rights were paid for with the lives of Max Florin, Fannie Rosen, Dora Evans, Josephine Cammarata, Maria Lauletti, Concetta Prestifilippo, and 140 other Triangle employees, plus the thousands of lives of miners, factory workers, and other laborers that were so easily thrown away for the sake of a profit margin.

I realize there’s an argument that public employees aren’t like private employees, and that public employees should not be allowed to unionize, never mind strike. Make no mistake, the real point of these arguments is that nobody should unionize, period. I have yet to see an argument against public employee unionization that hasn’t been used against private employee unions as well.

Former Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold nailed it when he said the Right is using “divide and conquer” tactics against all American workers. “The idea here on the right and the corporate side is to divide working people against each other, to turn private employees against public employees out of some kind of resentment,” he said.

Paul Krugman said today,

… what’s happening in Wisconsin isn’t about the state budget, despite Mr. Walker’s pretense that he’s just trying to be fiscally responsible. It is, instead, about power. What Mr. Walker and his backers are trying to do is to make Wisconsin — and eventually, America — less of a functioning democracy and more of a third-world-style oligarchy. And that’s why anyone who believes that we need some counterweight to the political power of big money should be on the demonstrators’ side.

See also Andy Stern.

Steve Benen says that Gov. Walker will make no compromises. The blinking will be done in the Wisconsin legislature, however. If three Republican senators switch sides, the Dems could block the bill. Pressure from constituents will be critical now.

When I saw the article about the Triangle Factory workers today, it felt as if they were calling to us to stand strong and not go back. I know some of you have been active in Wisconsin these past few days, and I thank you. Don’t let the oligarchs win.

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