Friday, March 25, 2011

100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire - and we're losing our memory

I've been sitting at my computer trying to get some work done with a live stream of the commemoration events at the site of the fire 100 years ago today in the background grabbing my attention over and over again - 146 young women whose lives were snuffed out in a moment of incomprehensible horror because their bosses thought of them as machines for their use and exploitation.

Wonderful website for the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition.

How quickly we forget. How quickly we relax into inertia and complacency believing that rights once won can never again be lost, as if the very fact that they were hard won doesn't mean that their defense calls always for vigilance.

I think now of eroding worker rights in the private sector (here in Wisconsin most recently with contract concessions at Harley-Davidson, Kohler, and Mercury Marine) and now in the public sector all across the country.  Bosses and bureaucrats want us to forget what working conditions were like before unions, and they hope that forgetfulness translates into apathy when 'other people's' rights are taken away.

The big surprise in Wisconsin last month was that this is not what happened. When the assault on the collective bargaining rights of 350,000 public workers (a number that means all of us know someone impacted by the threat) happened here, tens of thousands and then well over a hundred thousand people poured into the streets of Madison and many other communities around the state.

It is crucial now that public workers pay this back in support for the factory workers whose livelihoods have been gutted, in support for the unemployed and the poor, those who have diminishing hopes of ever again having a decent job to support their families. Without solidarity of great breadth and depth, the forces with endless resources to support them - corporations, CEOs, investors, politicians bought and paid for by corporate campaign donations - will steamroll over all of us.

The crowd in Manhattan is huge. This is gratifying. We are waking up. We are beginning to remember. We are beginning to reclaim this history.

Terrific essay in the Journal Sentinel today connecting the Triangle Factory fire to our struggles today, written by Nan Enstad, UW-Madison, The Triangle Fire and Its Lessons. She explains clearly what has happened to the evolution of the corporate world in this country and the connection between this and our swiftly disappearing worker rights:
People in Wisconsin now find themselves embroiled in this 100-year-old battle, opened on a new front. The Citizens United 2009 Supreme Court decision expanded the rights of corporate personhood in our political life, removing caps on corporate - and union - spending in elections.

The crisis in Wisconsin is occurring at just this junction of government, corporate power and workers' rights. Republican leaders respond strongly to distant corporate donors and ignore local polls of voters' views. The proposed budget threatens to privatize education and utilities while cutting benefits and programs that serve the poor, shifting profits to corporations and distributing costs downward.

The Triangle era provides us with an important insight: Corporations on their own lack local accountability. Politicians in the service of corporations will be tempted to betray their constituents. Local people have an investment in local accountability. Schools, faith communities, townships, workers, farmers and small business owners all must empower themselves and each other to participate meaningfully and creatively in guiding our path into the future.

Gratifying to see in today's crowd in the streets of Manhattan signs proclaiming, "We Are All Wisconsin."  That makes me proud to be a citizen of this state. But it is also a challenge to us all - to live up to those hopes and expectations.

Rep. Charles Schumer from New York just gave a stirring speech at the commemoration, and he held up Scott Walker as someone prepared "to undo your loved ones' legacy," speaking to garment workers and their union. We are at the heart of this struggle here in Wisconsin. We are being lifted up across the nation as an example of the threat and the hope that is in that struggle.

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