On the 101st Centennial of the Triangle Factory Fire, it’s strange to think how history has spiraled back to the point of departure, at this very place where I’m standing taking photos on my i-phone.
Staring up at Brown Hall – a building where NYU’s biology department is now housed – I think how the windows that students probably start out of wistfully at Washington Square and cherry blossoms on Spring days like this are the same ones that in 1911 young immigrant women – about the age of today’s college students – jumped through to their deaths because they had been locked in to work mandatory overtime, and a fire broke out. It wasn’t a university then – it was a garment factory – when the term ‘sweatshop’ had just been coined in American vernacular because of the way that, before the days of electricity and ventilation, workers would perspire in the steam of clothes-production, inhaling lint in the dark for hours at a time. The tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire galvanized the US labor movement and the ILGWU – the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union – to fight back against child labor, poverty-wages, and managers who were more interested in maximizing production than safety standards like fire escapes, to push for an 8 hour work day, to make huge strides for the women’s rights movement. ILGWU popularized the slogan “Don’t mourn – organize!”
Almost a year ago today, an eerily similar fire broke out at the Ha- Meem factory north of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Young women – not much older than your average college students in the US – had been locked in their factory producing clothing that lines the trendy racks of our nation’s malls. With no escape, like their Triangle predecessors a century before, many preferred to jump than be consumed by flames. ABC news aired a story on it just last week.
Have we solved the problem that the young garment workers of 1911 began to fight? Or just outsourced it? Maybe it has just moved from the corner where I now stand. But I can also see part of the solution from here. I’m such a sap. I’m just rushing through passing the campus event on my way to speak at the NYU business school, but still the handmade cardboard signs with super-glued fabric shirts commemorating each of the victims, dead 101 years now, makes me tear up a little. I’m mourning, but I’m not. I’m tearing up because I have hope.
A block away, still within eyesight, the NYU bookstore now carries one of the largest offerings in the nation of a living-wage union-made option for apparel : Alta Gracia. Sure, they’re t-shirts. But they’re also a beautiful product of history. Of the bookstore management that chose to see students’ enthusiasm for living-wages and union rights as an opportunity to link NYU with social responsibility in the very fabric of school pride. Of Donnie Hodge and Joe Bozich to launch a different kind of business– on that shows that doing good can be good business – the story that I am about to tell to promising young business students of NYU’s Civic Camp Conference. Of the young women – many about the age of today’s college students when they began – of the Fedotrazonas union in the Dominican Republic who saw a better future for their children and took up the cause. Of the young women – their names now on a bronze plaque at my feet – of the ILGWU, who jumped, who fought, who changed the world, who brought us to this place in history. I’m thankful to them.
In the bookstore, there’s a prominent display of NYU tees made at Alta Gracia and a photo of my friend, almost life-size, of union leader Yenny Perez greets shoppers when they enter the store. Alta Gracia is a t-shirt. A hoodie. Sweats! But Alta Gracia isn’t just a brand. It’s a relationship between all of these people, it’s a part of a current in history taking the world to a new place. This is everybody’s movement. We wouldn’t be here without each piece. And we’re not going anywhere unless we all come together. I’m thankful to everyone helping us to make a difference, helping us to make sure stories like the Triangle Factory Fire never repeat themselves again. Don’t mourn. Organize.
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