From Socialist Voice, April 2011

Commemoration of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire

25 March 2011 was the centennial of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York, which took the lives of 146 workers, mostly young immigrant women, and galvanised a movement for social justice.
     The factory at the time had more than five hundred employees. On 25 March 1911 a fire broke out on the seventh floor. The workers ran to the fire escape; it collapsed, dropping them to their death. On the eighth floor a critical exit was locked. People in the street watched in horror as the workers began to jump out the windows. Fire engines arrived, but their ladders reached only the fifth floor.
     There was a trial; but the owners, long known for their anti-union activities, got off. But the fire became a rallying-cry for the international labour movement. It took this horror to prompt the enacting of laws and regulations to protect workers. As one member of the American Society of Safety Engineers put it, “all the safety rules are written in blood.”
     Since 2008 a coalition of 120 organisations in the United States set up by the film-maker Ruth Sergel has held an annual commemoration. This year saw events all over the United States, ranging from activism to education and art. On 12 March the Manhattan Choral Ensemble performed a requiem based on Jonathan Fink’s sequence of poems “Conflagration and Wage: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.” The name of each victim was read out and a silver bell rung as schoolchildren or family members placed a white carnation on the pavement. A new anthology of poetry was launched, Walking Through a River of Fire, edited by Julia Stein, poet and anti-sweatshop activist. “We remember because we are still fighting for social justice for all.”
     A recent report states that 67 per cent of garment factories in Los Angeles and 63 per cent of those in New York violate minimum wage and overtime laws. In Los Angeles, 98 per cent of garment factories have serious health and safety issues.
     Sweat-Free Communities and International Labour Rights Forum invited Kalpona Akter and Babul Akter to speak at the commemoration. They are former garment workers who have been imprisoned in Bangladesh for trying to raise labour and safety standards there. “It’s where the Triangle Shirtwaist fires are taking place now,” said Björn Claeson, executive director of Sweatfree Communities.
     This is something we should all bear in mind when we go shopping for clothes. “Cheap” comes at a high price for today’s garment workers, whose plight is often not much better than indentured labourers.
     The commemoration of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire has implications for all of us today. The anonymous hands that made what you’re wearing now—do you ever stop to think under what conditions they do their work?

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