Posted by TAG - April 10, 2011 | News

The IVAW’s Adrienne Kinne flashes a smile — and a peace sign
(Photo: Thomas Good / NLN)

NEW YORK — April 9, 2011. Peace candidate turned war president Barack Obama spent the past week urging Democrats and Republicans to come up with a new war budget everyone could “live” with. Meanwhile, on a beautiful Spring day in New York City, the United National Antiwar Committee and 5000 of their supporters marched against Obama’s hat trick of wars.

“Torture has been reintroduced as a normal affair.” – Marcuse
(Photo: Thomas Good / NLN)

Whatever card you turn over, when playing Three Card Obama, there is no economic recovery — only War In Afghanistan, War In Iraq or War In Libya. Fed up with the war economy, a variety of organizations took to the streets on Saturday, April 9. Forming up in Union Square, as the magnolias blossomed and temperatures crept up, the throng marched down Broadway to Foley Square for a peace fair. NLN was there to capture the moment, and, as the great philosopher Rod Stewart once noted: Every Picture Tells A Story.

Brooklyn stands up for peace
(Photo: Thomas Good / NLN)

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It’s a long struggle!
(Photo: Thomas Good / NLN)

Staten Island in the streets
(Photo: Thomas Good / NLN)

(Photo: Thomas Good / NLN)

… and Veterans too
(Photo: Thomas Good / NLN)

Connecting the dots…
(Photo: Thomas Good / NLN)

New SDS was on hand to represent the youth
(Photo: Thomas Good / NLN)

(Photo: Thomas Good / NLN)

War is a learning disability
(Photo: Thomas Good / NLN)

Posted by TAG - April 5, 2011 | News

(Photo: Bud Korotzer / NLN)

“In the long run it makes little difference whether in the struggle for existence, we are killed by the firing of a factory or the firing of a rifle. Killed by mistake? Or killed by flames. It is all and only for the same purpose. It is all for the same end. The fire and the rifle each reach the same result. The exploitation of the workers by the idlers even to the sacrifice of the workers for the luxury of the loafers.”

“…at last, that while property is sacred, human flesh and blood is the cheapest known quantity on earth.”

Leonora O’Reilly, Irish-American trade union organizer, feminist, suffragist, 1911

NEW YORK — March 25th, 1911 was a balmy spring day. Trees in Washington Square Park were beginning to bud. Workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory a block away were getting ready to go home when a fire broke out spreading rapidly through the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors. Within 30 minutes the factory was ablaze and 146 workers were dead. Some were burned alive, others, trying to avoid that fate, jumped out of windows. Fire escapes would not hold anyone – they twisted and separated from the Asch building. Firemen came but their ladders couldn’t extend beyond the 6th floor. They held nets open but the netting broke. They couldn’t sustain the weight of a person jumping from the 9th floor. Observers across the street described hearing a thud as each person hit the sidewalk. One said those jumping, mostly young Jewish and Italian immigrants, looked like birds on fire. Another described a young man calmly taking the hand of one young woman after another and helping her up onto the window ledge so that she could jump. He and the final woman embraced, kissed, and she jumped. He jumped after her, she was his fiancĂ©e. The cause of these deaths was not the fire – the cause was the greed of Harris and Blanck, the owners of the factory. They had locked all but one exit door because they feared that a worker may steal a piece of cloth worth a few cents and they couldn’t monitor all the doors.

Sweatshop fires on the Lower East Side were common and many died in those fires. But this one was different. First, it occurred in Greenwich Village, a middle class to wealthy community where there were many observers. One of them was a young Frances Perkins who later became FDR’s Secretary of Labor. But first she worked as an investigator for the Factory Investigating Commission that the state legislature established three months after the fire. She never forgot what she saw that day. Secondly, the fire took place shortly after 20,000 workers in the needletrades had a lengthy 13 week strike in an effort to organize the shops. They gained some small concessions but not the right to unionize. Sweatshop owners had fought back by hiring prostitutes to walk the picket lines thereby creating the impression that the strikers were women of disrepute. The strikers welcomed the prostitutes calling their work honest, much better than scabs. Then thugs were hired to beat the strikers. When they did the police came and arrested the strikers. Many middle and upper class women joined the picket lines, including suffragists. So, at the time of the fire New Yorkers were already well aware of the working conditions in factories like the Triangle.

(Photo: Bud Korotzer / NLN)

After the fire the bodies of the victims were storeed on a pier. Stricken family members tried to identify the bodies. Many were only able to do so by recognizing a piece of jewelry – a ring or an earring. When they were buried over 100,000 mourners joined the funeral procession as 400,000 looked on.

Harris and Blanck were acquitted of any criminal wrongdoing. When they left the court the worker’s families shouted at them, “Murderers”. Harris and Blanck went on to open another factory and two years later an inspector discovered that the doors to the new factory were locked also. They were fined $20. The lives of immigrant workers were held to be cheap, only property had value.

Fast forward 100 years — throughout the month of March there were programs throughout the country to commemorate the centennial of the fire. On March 25, the actual date, there was a march from Union Square to the site of the fire on Washington and Greene streets. People carried shirtwaists on poles, each one bearing the name of one of the victims. There were unionists, school children, and descendants of the families of those killed. When the marchers reached their destination there was a fire engine there with its ladder reaching only the sixth floor. The windows of the ninth floor were draped with black and purple fabric. Firemen stood at attention along the entire block. A stage was set up along Washington Square East and the blocks between the park and Broadway were filled with thousands of people including classes of youngsters from NYC schools.

(Photo: Bud Korotzer / NLN)

The NYC Labor Chorus sang, a poem was recited about the heroic Italian elevator operator who lost his life because he kept transporting people from the upper floors long after it was safe to do so. There were invocations from Rabbi Michael Feinberg and Father John Massari. Mayor Bloomberg spoke and was soundly booed from the crowd filled with unionists. Several other politicians spoke – Hilda Solis, US Secretary of Labor, and Sen. Charles Schumer both honored the slain workers and said that we will never again return to the labor conditions of 100 years ago. A number of union leaders: Mary Kay Henry, President of SEIU, John Delgado of Local 79 who brought a construction worker, Richard Campoverde, with him to describe the horrible working conditions he was enduring, George Grisham, President of SEIU1199, Michael Mulgrew, President of the UFT, and Stuart Applebaum, the President of RWDSU/UFCT all spoke. The most militant of the group was Mary Bell, President of the Wisconsin Education Association Council. She spoke of the situation in her state saying that there are forces in the country who were working to destroy unions and the gains that labor had made over the past century. However, many workers today are working under conditions similar to those of 1911. She urged everyone to organize a strenuous fight-back campaign. Danny Glover, actor, director, and political activist also urged everyone to fight the forces of reaction that have now gained strength in the US.

Danny Glover
(Photo: Bud Korotzer / NLN)

Suzanne Pred Blass, the great niece of Rosie and Katie Weiner, then spoke representing the families of the victims. Her mother was only 5 years old when she went with her mother, Minnie Weiner, to the morgue to identify Rosie Weiner, her older sister’s body. Katie, Rosie’s other sister, also worked at the Triangle but escaped by lunging for an elevator cable and sliding down as it descended. Both Rosie and Katie were in their teens. Ms. Bass ended her speech by saying that we will never allow those lost in the Triangle fire to be forgotten and we will never allow ourselves to be dragged back to the conditions of 1911.

There were three threads that ran through almost all the speeches that day: we will never forget what happened that terrible day 100 years ago, we will not go back to the brutal conditions of 1911, but, at this time, many in this country and abroad are working under the very same conditions today.

(Photo: Bud Korotzer / NLN)

The final speaker, Salvatore J. Cassano, NYC Fire Commissioner, honored the city’s 21 Fire Divisions, Battalions, Engines, and Ladder Companies. As he finished speaking the firemen formed two lines on Washington St. and one stood at a bell. Ed Geraghty played a mournful “Amazing Grace” as families of those killed and school children walked through the corridor created by the two rows of firefighters to place a white carnation with the name and age of the dead person at the foot of the building. As they did so they stated the name and age of the victim and the fireman rang a bell. A final bell was rung when two women from Bangladesh placed an armful of red carnations next to the white ones saying that they represent the workers who were just killed in a fire in Bangladesh because the doors there were also locked. They sewed clothes for the Gap earning less than $2 a day.


The following Sunday, March 27, the final act of commemoration took place. About 50 people met at the site of the fire. After a few minutes a group of 146 people arrived all wearing matching black veils and a small sign with the name, age, and address of a fire victim. They included children walking while holding the hands of their grandparents. A chorus, part of the procession, stopped and sang three songs, two in Yiddish about life in the sweatshirts and one religious, and one in English, the Ballad of the Triangle fire. It described the funeral procession for the victims and how the mothers wept at seeing their young daughters in shrouds instead of wedding gowns.

(Photo: Bud Korotzer / NLN)

The entire group then wound through the streets of the Lower East Side heading for the Eldridge Street Synagogue. The group was led by a drummer. As the address of any of the victims was passed everyone stopped, the drum was beat, and someone said the name of the person adding “We are taking you home” in reference to that individual never making it home the day of the fire.

The procession entered the synagogue slowly and circled the room. A chorus sang and 146 yutzheit (death commemoration) candles were lit in the rear. The recently completed 24-year-long restoration left the synagogue glowing as the sunlight streamed through the stained glass windows and filled the room.

There was music, poems by the sweatshop poets, including Morris Rosenfeld, who described people jumping “wrapped in scarlet flames” which he called a “red avalanche.” The poems were overtly political and very militant. They said that workers will only be saved by themselves by building a strong working class movement. One referred to the workers as a machine not a human being. One, written by an anarchist declares,

“Wake Up!
How long, oh how long will you slave and still wait
Chained in shame and in dread!
How long will you splendid treasures create
For those that rob you of bread?

How long will you bow unable to rise,
Debased, with no home and no right!
Day dawns! Wake up! Oh open your eyes!
Discover your ironclad might.

Proclaiming the freedom of strong barricades,
Let war against foul tyrants be!
Brave comrades, courage and will pervades,
And lead you to victory!

The chains and thrones must all fall away
Under the workers sword!
With fragrant flowers, in golden array
Freedom is the earth’s reward.

And all will live and love and bloom
In freedom’s golden May!
Brothers’ don’t kneel. See the tyrants’ doom!
Swear you’ll be free as the day!

Strike everywhere the freedom bell!
Let suffering slaves feel their might!
Inspired in struggle, struggle like hell –
For yourself, your holiest right!”

At the end of the event all of the participants wearing the black mourning veils came forward and named the person they were representing, while, if available, their photos appeared on a screen. While all the commemorative events were said to be emotionally wrenching, this event seemed to be the most so.

(Photo: Bud Korotzer / NLN)

Although the past was clearly remembered and honored, these events were not about a bitter nostalgia. The point was repeatedly made that there are many forces of reaction in this country that want workers to return to a bygone era where workers had no rights and no voice, that these forces now have many workers laboring under 1911 conditions today in the US and abroad. Today in Burma little children are working as slaves mining rubies in mines owned by the Burmese military. Their tiny bodies can get into the deepest, narrowest pits. A decade ago 25 workers were burned alive in a North Carolina chicken processing plant. When the fire broke out all nine doors were either locked or blocked. Workers outside heard them pounding the doors and screaming but could do nothing to help. Miners are killed regularly in mines that are repeatedly cited as unsafe. According to the US Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, Census of Fatal Occupational Injustice, in the US alone, between 5,000 and 6,000 workers have been killed on the job every single year during the past decade. This year, Republicans in the House are pushing for a 20 percent decrease in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, (OSHA) budget saying that having safety measures costs jobs. Clearly the lives of workers are still not valued.

What Leonora O’Reilly said 100 years ago is as true today as it was then. When working people die because of their company’s greed, cutting corners on safety to increase their profit margin, the cause of those deaths is homicide. When Harris and Blanck locked the doors of their factory because they feared losing a few cents worth of fabric, they made themselves as guilty of murder as if they held a gun to their workers heads and pulled the trigger.

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