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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).

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