Jewish Journal


February 22, 2001

Sweatshop Days


Rose Freedman has died.

Her death at 107 years of age has been widely noted, for Freedman was the last living survivor of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire, a calamity that claimed 146 lives. Just months ago, she was featured in a PBS documentary, "The Living Century," which told not only of her experience 90 years ago, but also of the remarkable life she led thereafter. That life -- as The New York Times put it -- was both "colorful and courageous," right up until her last days in her home in Beverly Hills.

But it is her early days that I want to recall: the days we remember sentimentally as the time of the Lower East Side, which was also the time of the sweatshops and of their rapacious owners unconstrained by laws and regulations that would offer some protection for working-class people.

In 1902, the women of the Lower East Side organized a boycott of the kosher butchers of the area. After meat prices per pound had soared from 12 cents to 18 cents, women organized themselves as the Ladies Anti-Beef Trust Association. Their three-week-long boycott was a roaring success, imitated soon after in Cleveland and Detroit, and followed by frequent rent strikes and a 1909 strike that would have major implications for trade unionism in general: 20,000 shirtwaist makers, mostly women between the ages of 16 to 25, participated in what became the largest American strike by women for that time. The 1909 strike turned the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) into a force within the labor movement. Energized by the shirtwaist makers strike, 65,000 men, chiefly from the cloak and suit workers, left their jobs a year later and went on strike, demanding, among other things, a union shop.

The uptown Jews sought to intervene; they were horrified at the spectacle of Jewish workers striking against Jewish employers. Their efforts at mediation were finally successful when Boston lawyer Louis Brandeis negotiated what was called the "Protocol of Peace." Three weeks after the New York strike was settled, workers at Chicago's Hart, Schaffner & Marx went out on strike. They were soon joined by another 35,000 Chicago workers in the garment trades striking against 50 different manufacturers. Out of that strike was born the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, which later became Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU).

Then came Triangle. Essie Bernstein, age 19; Anna Altman, age 16; Molly Gernstein, age 17; Vincenza Belatta, age 16; and 142 others were killed, almost all immigrants to these shores, with its huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Fewer than 20 were men, and more than half were 21 years old or younger. The doors on the eighth and ninth floors were locked, and once the fire began to spread there was no escape. Many women -- girls, really -- jumped from the windows to their deaths on the sidewalk below, "their flaming skirts billowing in the air as they fell."

Francis Perkins, who would become the first woman cabinet officer as secretary of labor, was an eyewitness to the fire, and Al Smith, then a member of the New York State legislature, whose district included a number of the dead, spent time with the grieving families at the morgue and in their homes. And while Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, the owners of Triangle, were found "not guilty" by the jury that tried them for manslaughter, the event did trigger modest reforms in regulating worker safety. (Harris and Blanck reopened for business three days after the fire, and offered the families of the deceased a week's wages. Later, in a civil suit, they were ordered to pay $75 to each of the families of the victims.)

We remember Triangle these days as part of our nostalgic baggage. It is doubtful that many of us made the connection to Triangle when 25 workers died -- again, mostly women -- in a fire at the Imperial Food Products Poultry Plant in North Carolina due to a locked door. Surely, we have likely supposed, the deadly conditions that prevailed in 1911 have long since been corrected. Alas, the Imperial experience shows they have not. Nor is it correct to suppose that it is only in the South that such elementary violations of decency persist. These days, the center of America's garment industry (that small fraction of it which has remained domestic) is in Los Angeles, and the sweatshop conditions that prevail there are not so different from those that prevailed in New York City in 1911. The countries of origin of these immigrant women, who work too many hours for too little in wages in unsafe and unsanitary conditions, have changed. The laws have also changed, but government's laziness in enforcing the laws has remained, as has the indifference of too many employers.

All this was noticed forcefully four years back when UNITE (the trade union that was created out of a merger of the ILGWU and ACTWU), the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, and the American Jewish Congress co-sponsored a third seder in L.A.'s garment district. The featured speaker on that occasion was Freedman, who was a living link between then and now. Her death, in the fullness of time, transforms the link: once living, hence natural, it now becomes optional; dependent not on the raw memory of a remarkable survivor, but on the will and the empathy of those who are free to choose between remembering and forgetting, between compassion and indifference. It is not nostalgia that is at stake, but justice.

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