On March 25, 2011 I first published this blog post about a seminal disaster in our nation’s history. With the terrible tragedy of the building collapse in Bangladesh on Wednesday, I feel it is important to revisit this. I feel we need to learn from our own history and offer any support we can to Bangladeshi garment workers. The factory owners and administrative officials need to be held accountable.

More abstractly but also very importantly, we as purchasers of greatly undervalued clothing from countries such as Bangladesh, China and Vietnam need to realize that there is a risk in a cheap + plentiful equation. To reduce this risk we can demand fewer items for our own closets, purchase 2nd-hand/vintage clothing instead of newly made, and demand clothing be made by decently paid workers in safe work places...even if it costs us more.

From March 25, 2011:
One young victim’s grave. The Hebrew Free Burial Association

Today is the 100th anniversary of one of the most significant events in garment-making and labor history.

On Saturday, March 25, 1911, near quitting time, a fire broke out on the 8th floor of New York City’s Triangle Waist Company and quickly spread to the 9th and 10th floors. Within minutes 146 of the 500 employees had died in the blaze. The seamstresses—mostly young women who had recently immigrated to the US—were trapped, locked inside by the management. Numerous safety violations made their rescue impossible. The women who didn’t burn alive jumped to their deaths, to the shock of the crowd on the street.

Detail, History of the Needlecraft Industry (1938), by Ernest Fiene, High School of Fashion and Industry. A mural commissioned by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). From the New Deal Network

The horror of the tragedy casts a shadow even to this day.

After the fire, public sentiment strongly favored increased safety standards and humane working conditions, and workers flocked to strengthening unions. Progress was made, much due to that terrible March day.

{Must see: Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives at Cornell University’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Website}

Shirtwaists, PBS

From the Cornell exhibit:

This incident has had great significance to this day because it highlights the inhumane working conditions to which industrial workers can be subjected. To many, its horrors epitomize the extremes of industrialism. 
The tragedy still dwells in the collective memory of the nation and of the international labor movement. The victims of the tragedy are still celebrated as martyrs at the hands of industrial greed.
Period editorial cartoon

On March 25 I always sorrowfully remember the young workers. I strongly believe that a century later we should not be debating the importance of organized labor.

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