Thread and Roses: Art and Activism for the 100th Anniversary of Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
This month marks the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire that occurred on March 25th, 1911 at what is now the Brown building at NYU on the corner of Washington Place and Green Street. The fire is said to be NY’s largest workplace disaster before September 11, killing 146 workers—mostly young women from immigrant families who either died in the fire or jumped to their death from the 8th floor of the building since the workers had otherwise been locked in. A terrible tragedy in the history of NY garment production, this 100th anniversary is a time to pause, reflect, and act in various ways.
In 2011 we can celebrate the incredible activism of the early 20th century. A significant number of garment workers at the time organized into the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), the United Garment Workers and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA), engaging in collective bargaining with factory owners in the first few decades of the twentieth century. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or “Wobblies”) were also critically engaged with struggles in textile manufacturing, leading to the “Bread and Roses” strike at the Lawrence Mills in 1912.
Women played a major role in the labor organizing of the early 20th century, both as workers and as consumers. Just a few years before the terrible fire, it was female garment workers who led the now legendary walkout at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in 1909, sparking what is now called the Uprising of 20,000 organized by the ILGWU. This massive organizing effort eventually led to a number of worker rights and the drafting of the Protocol of Peace, which included the right to unionize. Women also played an important role in the mobilization of consumer movements at the time, organizing consumer leagues, consumer cooperatives, and boycotts in solidarity with working-class women.
We can take the time to acknowledge the incredible advances in labor rights that this organizing has meant for workers in the US today: the 8-hour workday, the weekend for example, safe and healthy workplaces, anti-discrimination, and the right to organize to name a few. But we should also take the time to acknowledge that the garment industry is still filled with abuses, here and overseas. In the last year several fires in Bangladesh garment factories have killed workers, including a fire in December that killed nearly 30. And the garment production that remains in New York today is often underpaid, carried out by undocumented workers who lack basic protections.
While much garment manufacture has moved overseas, as designers, artists, DIYers, and consumers in New York, we have a number of unique opportunities to change garment production for the better. This includes finding ways to work with the garment workers with whom we share the city. As so many of us seek out the ability to produce our designs locally or to shop for clothes made locally, we should also make sure that the local jobs we are creating and sustaining come with safe working conditions and a fair, living wage for everyone in the chain of production.
Want to do something?
Activist-crafter Cat Mazza of Microrevolt has organized an action to commemorate each of the 146 women. Participants have been asked to sew/crochet/felt/knit a numbered armband to be worn standing with Workers United on March 25th. They don’t need any more volunteers to make armbands at this point, but everyone is invited to stand with Workers United (formerly the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union) on March 25, 11:00am-1:30pm. The event will include music and a ceremony with current garment workers and members of victim’s families.
Want to learn more?
NYU’s Grey Gallery currently has an excellent show up (and it happens to be on the same block the fire took place). “The exhibition explores a century of efforts to remember their lives and to expiate the tragedy through social, political, and economic reforms.”
January 11–March 26 and April 12–July 9, 2011
Grey Art Gallery, New York University, 100 Washington Square East, NYC 10003
More events including a concert, conference, and play are listed here.
And, don’t forget, the submissions deadline for “Good Work” is fast approaching. How would you like to commemorate this tragedy? To honor today’s workers and activists? What does it mean to you to do or have work that is just and good? As a maker of or with textiles, how would you like to celebrate May Day?
* The title of this column is a play on “Bread and Roses,” a phrase taken from a poem and used to refer to the 1912 textile workers strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. The call of women marchers, “We want bread, but we want roses too,” is said to be a call for dignity as well as fair wages, that life should be beautiful as well as just. Tali Weinberg is an artist, activist, instructor, and curator, and is currently an artist in residence at the Textile Arts Center.