100 Years Fighting For Workers’ Rights

Probably you’ve never heard of Clara Lemlich Shavelson. She gained prominence around 100 years ago, trying to organize garment workers in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Considered a “radical,” she was ignored by most New Yorkers until a fire at a non-union sweatshop claimed 146 workers lives. What’s the modern relevance to this? In a word: Walmart.

First about Clara: She was a worker at one of the sweatshops that used to line the avenues of Manhattan’s Lower East Side.  The workers knew they were underpaid, overworked, and working in conditions considered hazardous by anyone who bothered to look at them.  But hey the factory owners were all men, the union bosses were also all men, and back then women didn’t even have the right to vote.

Anyway, the union bosses held a rally at Cooper Union, continuing their call for “caution and deliberation” in the face of factory owners who lined the pockets of the city’s political players.  Besides, the union bosses reasoned: women are hard to organize and unwilling to stick out a strike.

That’s when Clara made her move.  Rising on the shoulders of her fellow workers, she took the stage and said that she’d “not have further patience for talk” and then said simply, “I move that we go on a general strike.”  Pretty gutsy move for a woman barely out of her teens… and hey, THEY WON!  The general strike worked, many the sweatshops recognized the Women’s Trade Union League, and workers in union shops started getting a fair wage, and the factories started paying attention to things like worker safety, fire hazards, and running fire drills in case….

Something happened at around 4:45PM at the non-union Triangle Waist Company, 100 years ago this Friday.  Someone (probably) threw a cigarette into a bin of cloth scraps left over from the cutter’s tables, which smoldered and caught fire, and next thing anyone knew the building’s 8th, 9th, and 10th floors were aflame.  They didn’t have a fire alarm system in this sweatshop, they hadn’t run drills on what to do if the non-existent fire alarm rang, and the factory foremen had locked some of the building exits to guard against worker theft.  The flimsy and (probably) broken fire escape melted from the heat, as did the elevator rails, and when all was said and done 146 garment workers lost their lives that day.

All that galvanized the workers’ movement.  Politicians who had considered the workers’ movement on the fringe began speaking on behalf of labor reform, NY’s Bravest started reporting (and making companies fix) fire hazards similar to those that started the Triangle Factory Fire, and by 1915 NY State was “one of the most progressive states in terms of labor reform.”

Now on to Walmart:  On March 29th, the US Supreme Court will hear arguments in the largest sex-discrimination lawsuit in the history of these United States, brought by female employees of Walmart against the corporate giant.  The arguments are the ones you’d expect: Men get promoted more than women, and the average woman worker only earns a fraction of the average man’s wage when both have similar positions and tenure at Walmart.

But wait!  There’s more!  Walmart’s accused of creating a hostile work environment for doing things like holding employee meetings at Hooters restaurants and strip clubs, referring to women as “girls,” and generally letting women know their place at Walmart ain’t in the corporate suite.

While this may seem like a fair stretch from the days and conditions that sparked the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, keep two things in mind:

  1. The benefits we now enjoy, things like the 40-hour week, unemployment insurance, worker safety, etc etc etc were all hard-fought reforms won by workers willing to sacrifice a bit now for a better tomorrow.
  2. Walmart does have a certain habit of locking their workers in their stores, do a piss-poor job of ensuring worker safety when Christmas comes around, and will even smoke your meat for you in their stores.

So while we commemorate the workers lost in the Triangle Fire, also keep in mind the hard-won reforms borne from the aftermath of this tragedy, and that we’ve still got our work cut out for us when it comes to having workers get paid a living wage while being treated with dignity and respect.

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