The Triangle Fire and Anti-Sweat Activism
Two weeks ago on Sunday, February 21st, at the fine age of 107 Bessie Cohen died. She was
the last living survival of the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911. As a 19-year
old garment worker in New York, Bessie had just completed her 9-hour shift at the Triangle
Shirtwaist company when she heard from a co-worker that a fire had broken out in the 10
story building. With tons of highly flammable cotton and dust throughout the building,
workers knew that the building could easily become an inferno. Bessie Cohen was one of the
lucky ones, she managed to escape by running down a secondary set of stairs located near
the freight elevator. But 146 of her co-workers died, either by suffocation or smoke
inhalation as they pounded at the locked doors of the main stairways, or they broke
windows and jumped to their deaths.
Bessie Cohen's best friend, and fellow garment worker, 15-year old Dora Wolfovitch was one of the young immigrant women workers who lost her live in the fire. Wolfovitch leapt to her death in an attempt to escape the fire. In an 1996 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Bessie Cohen recalled, "Everybody was running, trying to get out. And there was this beautiful little girl, my friend, Dora. I remember her face before she jumped."
In tribute to her co-workers and friends who were killed in the fire, Bessie became a lifelong union supporter and activist dedicating herself to work on behalf of organized labor and for worker health and safety. Today, garment and apparel workers in the US are organized by UNITE (the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees.) Steve Nutter, regional director with UNITED said of Bessie Cohen, "by surviving what she had been through, she became a symbol for the labor movement and also for the Jewish community in America." Nutter further notes that, "Mrs Cohen's a symbol because she reminds us of our past and was look and see it's not just the past. It's right here today."
While there is little labor history taught in US school, the Triangle Shirtwaist company fire is one of the few incidents students point to when asked to identify an event in US labor history. This New York fire which resulted in the gruesome death of so many young immigrant women workers capture worldwide attention and gave powerful momentum to the labor movement and the demands for a safe workplace. It also gave powerful momentum and a labor focus to International Women's Day, March 8th.
But I wonder what Bessie Cohen would make of the return of the sweatshop. Unions, immigrant groups and community activists succeeded in eliminating sweat shops in the US apparel industry a few decades after the fire. Yet today, they are back. And it's not just the garment industry where workers can find themselves locked into an inferno. A few years ago, dozens of poultry workers in Hamlet, North Carolina were killed or horribly burned when a fire broke out in their plant and they discovered that the emergency doors had been locked.
Bessie Cohen was a fighter and one suspects that she probably followed the words of another woman labor activists and agitator, Mary "Mother" Jones, who said "mourn for the dead, but fight like hell for the living." And if one looks for signs of a renewed desire to "fight like hell for the living," you need only look at what is happening with students and the growing anti-sweat campaign on campuses and schools around the country. In hundreds and thousands of organizations, groups and committees around the country, linked through the internet and the world wide web, students are learning first hand about solidarity and building a new anti-sweat movement -- with workers in the US and workers internationally. Through these anti-sweat campaigns they are learning to challenge authority including university and high school administrations, demanding that these institutions adopt, monitor and enforce "codes of conduct" for licencees of apparel produced with the institutions name. They are learning about the dismal state of worker rights in the US and abroad. And that the best guarantee of worker rights is self-organization by workers -- and the construction of a powerful labor movement. One hopes that the organizing skills that they are learning in these campaign may stay with them through a lifetime of work and activism, so that they may become the last generation that will have to fight against sweatshops and jobs that kill.
Elaine Bernard is Executive Director of the Harvard Trade Union Program. She is a member of the National Writers Union (NWU/UAW 1981).