Why the Triangle Factory Fire Is Worth Remembering
Walkers in the Triangle fire centennial
By Andi Sosin and Joel Sosinsky,
The Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition
On March 25th, 2011, due in significant part to the efforts of the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition, the eyes of progressives and advocates for the rights of working people were focused on the black and purple mourning buntings hanging below the ninth floor windows of the building that still stands on Washington Place and Greene Street, where thousands gathered to commemorate the centennial of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. That horrific "industrial accident" swept through the top floors of a non-union garment factory in New York City where 146 workers, mostly young immigrant women, chose to jump nine stories to their deaths, rather than being incinerated. The factory owners refused to take available safety precautions, and locked the exit door in order to prevent employee theft and keep out union organizers. A symbolic funeral procession of four hundred thousand citizens of all social classes and ethnicities compelled New York's politicians to examine industrial working conditions and pass protective legislation, making the Triangle fire the reason for the safety regulations and labor laws we now take for granted. The deaths of these innocent young girls led the way for the growth of a strong American labor movement in the following decades. As union power is now at a low point, the Triangle fire centennial provides an appropriate reminder of how a fire that destroyed the lives of even a small number of people can galvanize a movement for social justice.
Growing out of an artist's vision of creating ephemeral chalk memorials to the Triangle fire's victims each anniversary, the goal of the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition has been to create a centennial event that would make a difference to those who participated in it. The Coalition served as a clearinghouse using Internet communications and social media like Facebook and Twitter, to bring together artists, families of the victims and survivors, scholars, feminists, and ethnic organizations, along with the American Society of Safety Engineers, the NYC Fire Department and Workers United, the successor union to the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, to commemorate the fire's centennial. With over two hundred participating organizations, cultural events included plays, poetry readings, music and a scholarly conference. Highlighting the official ceremony was a procession of almost 1,000 activists who carried146 poles from which flew shirtwaist shaped kites, decorated with the names and ages of each victim inscribed on a funeral sash. At 4:45 pm that afternoon, at the moment the first fire alarm was sounded in 1911, across the nation bells were rung to remember all the victims of workplace disasters.
Unfortunately we now live in a period where the fiscal exigencies prompted by deregulation, regressive tax policies, the financial crisis and Republican politics threaten to gut the workplace protections that were hard won after the Triangle fire. From the Massey mine disaster to the Gulf oil spill tragedy, to unfair union-avoidance tactics and attempts to bust public service unions in Wisconsin and other states, a cruel scheme is underway to further enrich the corporate elite while accelerating a race to the bottom for the American working class. We now risk returning to an era in which an avoidable tragedy like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire becomes inevitable. The Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition successfully organized diverse groups around the memory of one workplace tragedy, but there are so many more tragedies that could be prevented here and in the foreign countries where industries have fled. To honor the memory of those who died in the Triangle factory fire, and those who labor in dangerous conditions today, we must be willing to raise labor consciousness through actions that ensure that the conditions that enabled the Triangle disaster never return.
Neighborhoods Being Demolished
Wall Street benefits from destruction of working-class homes
By Dave Ransom
All across the Rust Belt, cities are tearing down working-class housing - in Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Cleveland, Detroit. Nearly $2 billion in federal money is being used to raze homes that have been left vacant because of the economic crisis.
The number of empty and abandoned homes in Detroit, for instance, has now reached 80,000, and the Motor City may be a fearful preview of urban America's future. Mayor David Bing has pledged to raze 10,000 houses in his first term. Nearly 13,000 were bulldozed before he took office. Today, block after block in Detroit has essentially been returned to prairie, complete with pheasants, grouse, and the occasional coyote. Some eighty percent of the once vibrant Recovery Park neighborhood has been denuded of homes - nearly 2,000 acres.
Many of the demolished houses were beyond repair. But their working-class owners were not the cause of that. By computerizing production, driving down wages and benefits, laying off workers, and moving plants out of the area entirely, the auto companies have cut Detroit's population in half. Now it's Wall Street's turn to whack Detroit, as the big banks foreclose on working-class homeowners reeling from the economic crash. "It's class warfare on steroids," says one Michigan activist.
Besides the two million houses for sale nationwide, there is an equally large "shadow inventory" of homes either in foreclosure or so far "underwater" they're worth less than half the mortgage - and whose owners will probably walk away.
Add the record number of foreclosures expected this year, and you can understand why some analysts see home prices as again "falling off a cliff" - with yet more people pushed out of the door and onto the street. This was not supposed to happen. To keep people in their homes, the government promised many billions of dollars in mortgage relief. So far, very little of that money has seen the light of day. Tens of billions of dollars have gone unspent, and hundreds of thousands of homeowners have been turned away.
It's hard not to conclude that the government's real housing policy is not to rescue homeowners, but to demolish a good part of the nation's housing. The administration has already put up $2 billion for the job, which is going to Detroit and other cities.
Though this is being billed as "neighborhood stabilization," that's probably just a smokescreen.
Instead, it's apparently just another gift to the banks. By demolishing houses rather than repairing them, "excess" housing is reduced, driving up prices and pulling the banks part way out of the hole they dug with the sub-prime loans. "We need to move these toxic assets off the banks' books," a Wall Street financier wrote in the Washington Post. In the cities where the thousands of homes are being demolished, there is much talk of turning the vacant blocks into green space, parks, or even farms.
So far, that's mostly just talk. "What will replace these neighborhoods is anybody's guess," commented Canada's National Post in a story about Detroit. "But it could redefine the way cities around the world deal with urban blight and the exodus of residents."
What that means is that, if ordinary, working-class Americans want a decent urban life in their future, they'd better make sure that it's them - and not the banks or corporations - who oversee the remaking of the cities.
This article originated in the People's Tribune
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