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Remembrance & Looking Forward

Every year, March 25 invokes remembrance & honor from the labor rights community. The day marks the anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that occurred in New York City in 1911; the largest garment manufacturing tragedy to happen on US soil.

The fire claimed 146 lives; 123 women, 23 men, and nearly all immigrants. The fire served as the match lighting for women to join the labor movement, largely through the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union. The petitions, strikes, and protests that marked their efforts cost them both social and physical security, but would accelerate the acquisition of workers rights that most all of us in the United States enjoy today (freedom of association in joining trade unions, elimination of forced and child labor, minimum wage and overtime requirements, enforcement of safety regulations and workers comp, etc.). The same rights were championed decades later by the tenacious men & women of the Civil Rights Movement who fought their own battles for the same rights to be guaranteed for African Americans. 

The conditions that produced the Triangle Shirtwaist tragedy are key to understanding how such devastating events occur: fire safety regulations were not enforced, and doors and windows were locked during work hours to prevent theft. These conditions sound inconceivable to many workers in the West, and yet they are regretfully the common state of many garment manufacturing facilities around the world today, where lethal fires of similar size happen too often.

If you are wondering whether or not you would have been on the right side of history with labor rights in 1911, here are things you can do today:

  1. Pay attention when you hear about worker's rights in this day and age. This means things like income inequality, mass incarceration and the immigrant workforce. Read stories about these issues from both sides of the political spectrum-- sift through the bias to find what you believe and do something about it. Take a note out of the history books: join pickets and nonviolent protests, volunteer, host community discussion nights. And of course, vote for public servants that will participate with integrity in empowering workers across society.
  2. Research whether or not your favorite companies support workers’ rights along their supply chains. Many companies talk about corporate social responsibility on their websites, but reports from third-party action/watchdog groups will tell an unbiased version of the story. (Human Rights Watch, Workers Rights Consortium, and International Labor Rights Forum are excellent resources.) If you're disappointed with what you find, write to these companies and ask them to improve their practices to international ethical standards. If you're happy with what you find, tell everyone you know and make sure they get good business. Use your collective power of purchase to tell the corporations what you want.
  3. Become an active member of your community and talk to people who look different than you do. I think somehow we subconsciously justify participating (even passively) in a corrupt global economy because somewhere in us we don't realize that no matter what country you live in, no matter your standard of living or minimum wage, we are all humans with a basic desire for dignity. Be part of a community garden, eat meals with your neighbors. Strengthen your empathy muscles, and your concentration on shared humanity will change your shopping tastebuds. I promise!