Friday, March 25, 2011

A solemn anniversary: Triangle Shirtwaist Factory

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. In just half an hour, the fire snuffed out the lives of nearly 150 young factory workers who were trapped in the upper stories of the building. Many of them flung themselves out of upper-story windows, forced to choose between burning to death or perishing in an eight-story fall. Outrage over the fire became the impetus behind a strengthened union movement and a push for the workplace safety regulations that we enjoy today. But as the first linked article notes:

In the aftermath of the Triangle fire, public opinion, shifting political allegiances, and an active labor movement resulted in state and federal laws regulating industrial working conditions. A hundred years later, however, with the decline of organized labor and the rise of free market economics, factories that exploit immigrant workers are once again doing business in the U.S.
Must these young women have died in vain? Must we return to those bad old days of massive profits for the few through exploitation of the many? Must the workplace return to the grim, inhumane conditions so vividly depicted in novels ranging from Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist to the more recent The Dress Lodger by Sheri Holman?

How do we resist a backslide into the 19th century?

One way is to support worker's rights and union rights -- at the polls, in letters to your representatives, letters to the newspaper, wherever your voice can be heard. Money talks, and while those with the biggest bankrolls get to shout the loudest, the collective voice of many can be just as loud.

Another way, which takes even more effort these days, is to seek out clothing and goods that are not made by exploited labor, goods made by union factories, fair trade collectives, local businesses, and individual craftspeople.

Every time I knit or sew a garment, especially if I use handspun yarn from local sources, I reflect on how I am not contributing to the exploitation of garment workers. But I can't manufacture everything I wear -- shoes, jeans, and foundation undergarments particularly -- so I'm trying to find sources for union-made and fair-trade clothing. The choices are, alas, limited -- mostly to t-shirts and similar casual wear, some underwear, and fair-trade clothing in... well... casual "hippie chic" styles that look great on some folks, but might not go over well as office wear. Anyone have any good sources of union-made or fair-trade office attire? Let's start a list in the comments and see what we can come up with.

ETA: I just sent this letter to all of my federal and state representatives:
Today, March 25th, marks the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Nearly 150 young people lost their lives in about one-half hour, many of them forced to choose between dying in the flames or perishing in an eight-story fall. The fire gave impetus to the union movement and to the push for workplace safety regulations. Today, corporate-driven politics are pushing us straight back to 19th century labor practices, stifling unions and pushing for the "right" to exploit workers. Please help fight this backslide. Please support union rights, worker rights, workplace safety, and policies that reward corporations that keep jobs on American soil instead of shipping them overseas. 


lunaticraft said...

You go girl! <333

Crafty Mama said...

As a property manager I am especially interested in fire safety issues. Thank you so much for commemorating such a tragic part of history and highlighting how far we have come.


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