One hundred forty-six workers died in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory
fire March 25, 1911 in New York City. Mostly women, mostly young, they were
locked inside the factory, trapped as it burned. Many leaped to their deaths
from ninth floor windows.
Ninety-five years later, at least 54 workers were killed in a fire
in KTS Textile Industries in Chittagong, Bangladesh. They, too, were locked
inside the factory, where they sewed clothing for export to the United States.
The dead workers at KTS included twelve-year-old, thirteen-year-old and fourteen-year-old
girls. Many workers at KTS believe the death toll was much higher than the officially-reported
number, pointing out that hundreds were at work at the time of the fire.
Did you read about this tragedy? Did you see it on the evening news?
I didn’t. Workers being burned to death – that is not news. Workers
dying in far-off places -- that is not news. It happens all the time. Three
more workers burned to death in another Bangladeshi factory March 6. Last year,
64 workers died in the collapse of another Bangladeshi clothing factory.
KTS Textiles produced clothing for sale in the United States. Its workers competed
against other textile workers in factories in Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador,
Haiti, and Nicaragua. Workers at KTS and their counterparts in Thailand, China,
and India are pitted against each other by “free” trade. Free trade
allows factories and capital to move across borders, in a global race to the
bottom. At the bottom, they find the lowest wages, least restrictive health
and safety laws, and the greatest opportunities to profit by polluting air,
water, soil and communities. That race to the bottom is the essence of “free”
trade and corporate globalization.
In a world where laws are dictated by the forces of corporate globalization,
money needs no passport or visa. Corporations need no passports or visas. They
can move freely across national boundaries, buying and selling factories, moving
jobs from country to country in search of the least-protected, lowest-paid work
force obtainable. Just as corporations move freely around the globe,
so do many of their wealthy owners. KTS Textile owner Wahidul Kabir reportedly
lives in California. Workers, of course, cannot legally emigrate to follow the
factories or the jobs.
Meanwhile, in Washington, politicians continue to push for more “free”
trade, more corporate globalization. After NAFTA, after CAFTA, today they push
for free trade agreements with Peru and wth Colombia and with Ecuador.
In Ecuador, thousands blocked highways this week to protest “free”
trade talks. In Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican
Republic, workers continue fighting against CAFTA.
The deaths of 146 Triangle Shirtwaist factory workers on March 25, 1911 sparked
national outrage and organizing. Rose Schneiderman, an organizer for the International
Ladies Garment Workers Union, spoke at a memorial service for the dead workers.
“This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city,.”
she told the assembled crowd. “Every week I must learn of the untimely
death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed. The
life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred. There are so many
of us for one job it matters little if 146 of us are burned to death.”
The deaths at KTS went almost unnoticed. As in 1911, there are so many
workers for one job that it matters little when workers are locked in and burned
in Bangladesh or locked out and fired in El Salvador or stalked and murdered
in Juarez. The best way to mourn the Triangle Shirtwaist workers, the
KTS Textile workers, and all the workers who suffer and die for corporate globalization
is to fight back with global solidarity.
Global worker solidarity takes many forms and advances under many banners --
from Sweat Free Communities (www.sweatfree.org)
and the National Labor Committee (www.nlcnet.org)
and United Students Against Sweatshops (www.studentsagainstsweatshops.org)
in the United States to the Clean Clothes Campaign (www.cleanclothes.org)
in Britain and hundreds of organizations around the world. From buying and boycotting
to writing letters and making phone calls to marching nad organizing, these
campaigns offer ways to build the strong working-class movement that Rose Schneiderman
advocated 95 years ago.
On April 7-9, part of that global solidarity movement will convene in Minneapolis.
The Sweat Free Communities international conference at the Resource Center of
the Americas will bring together workers from across the Americas and across
the world. Charles Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee will be there,
as will Kimi Lee of the Los Angeles Garment Worker Center. Yannick Etienne of
Haiti’s Batay Ouvriye will be there, and so will Jei Fong of the Chinese
Staff and Worker Association. and Vivien Yau of Students and Scholars Against
Corporate Misbehavior. They will tell stories of worker organizing and solidarity
from Uzbekistan to Nicaragua, from Hong Kong to Indiana and Florida.
Today, as in 1911, Rose Schneiderman’s words ring true: “Too
much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working
people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong
Mary Turck is the editor of the Connection to the Americas,
a publication of the Resource Center of the Americas, and of www.americas.org.
Email to: email@example.com