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Lessons Today from the Triangle Fire of the Past

January 29, 2016

Take a walk in Greenwich Village and stop at Washington Place and Greene Street and look up. You’ll find an impressive stone building that has withstood many of the city’s changes—the former Asch Building. Near the turn of the 20th century, the building’s top three floors were occupied by Triangle Shirtwaist Company, best known for the tragic fire of 1911 that killed 146 people, most of them women. Today, the

Student actors from Brooklyn College reenact a scene when workers could not escape the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire because the doors were locked "against the law" from the outside.

Student actors reenact a scene of workers unable to escape the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire because the doors were locked “against the law” from the outside.

building is home to NYU’s science building where students study biology and chemistry.

According to The New York Times, the only remnant of the building’s role in this disastrous fire are two street-level bronze plaques on its façade. What the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire still represents is a lesson on the importance of organizing and the pervasive struggles that remain today for garment factory workers in several developing countries around the world.

In its second public interest salon, CUNY Law’s student affairs on Thursday brought together three classic New York traditions—the ater, social justice activism and CUNY — to shed light on horrific working conditions that have changed little from 1911 to today, some 105 years later. The event was inspired by a Brooklyn College theater department production of the Triangle Factory Fire Project, performed by Brooklyn College theater students who reenacted crucial moments leading up to, during and after the tragic blaze.

“These lessons echo the spirit of true solidarity and organizing, and are important to keep alive,” said May Ying Chen,  former vice president for the International garment workers union and a speaker at the event.

While the number of factory workers in New York’s garment industry has plunged — from almost 1 million in 1990 to 25,000 in 2014— those numbers have increased considerably outside the U.S. The top five garment producing countries are China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Mexico and Indonesia, Chen explained.

Organizing now has to be done on a global level.

(from l-r): CUNY Law prof. Shirley Lung, retired union rep. May Ying Chen, and CUNY Law prof. Ruthann Robson

(from l-r): CUNY Law prof. Shirley Lung, retired union rep. May Ying Chen, and CUNY Law prof. Ruthann Robson

“We have a right to know where our garments are made,” said CUNY Law professor Ruthann Robson. But, she warned, even if the label says “Made in the U.S.A.”, you still have to check. It could be that the clothes are made in prisons or in U.S. territories such as the Mariana Islands, where the same labor laws of the U.S. don’t necessarily apply.

Chen, Robson and Shirley Lung, a CUNY Law professor whose work focuses on labor issues impacting garment, restaurant and construction workers, offered some food for thought on what’s happening today and how we all can make a difference:

Information to know:

  • In Cambodia, women are pushing for a salary of $160 per month and are being met with violence.
  • Legislative changes that have happened with regard to garment workers are the result of the social movement driving legislative changes.
Displayed photos of 1911 workers, the production, and garment workers organizing for higher wages and better rights.

Displayed photos of 1911 workers, the production, and garment workers organizing for higher wages and better rights.

What you can do:

  • If you buy something online, ask where it was made and if it was made under fair working conditions. If you make enough noise, companies may start thinking about these issues.
  • Several CUNY Law students have organized a clothing swap to avoid buying new clothes.
  • Support collective organizing efforts when you see them, such as Fight for 15 to increase the minimum wage across the country.

Stay tuned for the next CUNY Law Student Affairs salon which will be in March and will focus on issues of race in society.

 

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