New Issue of Rethinking Schools: On Wisconsin!

Rethinking Schools Spring 2011 issue features the uprising in Wisconsin, teaching about the most dangerous rock in the world, and a special address by Chicago poet Patricia Smith:

Keepers of the Second Throat: Illustration by Melanie Cervantes

Click here for “Keepers of the Second Throat.”

VOLUME 25, ISSUE 3 — SPRING 2011
As a special introduction to our website, the text of the entire spring issue of Rethinking Schools is accessible here, free of charge. If you aren’t already a member of Rethinking Schools, we hope a look at the exciting and thought-provoking articles in this issue will inspire you to join.

CLIMATE CRISIS IN THE CLASSROOM
Educators need to begin to treat the climate crisis with the urgency it deserves as arguably the most significant threat to life on earth. In this issue of Rethinking Schools, we explore why there is so little teaching or discussion of climate change in classrooms and suggest paths forward.

Walmart: Are Aliens Invading? — Barbara Ehrenreich in The American Prospect

[In this month of the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire it is worth remarking that Walmart locks its doors to keep “graveyard shift” employees in overnight.]

If Wal-Mart is a person, as the Supreme Court contends, it’s a behemoth terrorizing the countryside. But when it comes to workers’ rights, it remains curiously immune from lawsuits.

Barbara Ehrenreich | March 29, 2011 | web only in American Prospect

Wal-Mart -- It's Alive!
(Flickr/James Moore)

What is Wal-Mart — in a strictly taxonomic sense, that is? Based on size alone, it would be easy to confuse it with a nation: In 2002, its annual revenue was equal to or exceeded that of all but 22 recognized nation-states. Or, if all its employees — 1.4 million in the U.S. alone — were to gather in one place, you might think you were looking at a major city. But there is also the possibility that Wal-Mart and other planet-spanning, centi-billion-dollar enterprises are not mere aggregations of people at all. They may be independent life-forms — a species of super-organisms.

This, anyway, seems to be the takeaway from the 2010 Citizens United decision, in which the Supreme Court, in a frenzy of anthropomorphism, ruled that corporations are actually persons and therefore entitled to freedom of speech and the right to make unlimited campaign contributions. You may object that the notion of personhood had already been degraded beyond recognition by its extension, in the minds of pro-life thinkers, to individual cells such as zygotes. But the court must have reasoned that it would be discriminatory to let size enter into the determination of personhood: If a microscopic cell can be a person, then why not a brontosaurus, a tsunami, or a multinational corporation?

But Wal-Mart’s defense against a class action charging the company with discrimination against its female employees — Dukes v. Wal-Mart — throws an entirely new light on the biology of large corporations. The company argues that with “7 divisions, 41 regions, 3400 stores and over one million employees” (in the U.S., as of 2004, when the suit was first launched), it is “impossible” for any small group of plaintiffs to adequately represent a “class” in the legal sense. What with all those divisions, regions, and stores, the experiences of individual employees are just too variable to allow for a meaningful “class” to arise. Wal-Mart, in other words, is too big, too multifaceted and diverse, to be sued.

So if Wal-Mart is indeed a person, it is a person without a central nervous system, or at least without central control of its various body parts. There exist such persons, I admit — whose brains have lost command over their voluntary muscles — but they are in a tiny minority. Surely, when the Supreme Court declared that corporations were persons, it did not mean to say “persons with advanced neuromuscular degenerative diseases.”

For those who have never visited more than one Wal-Mart store, let me point out that the company is not a congeries of boutiques run by egotistical retailing divas. True, there are detectable differences between stores. Some feature Wal-Mart’s indigenous “Radio Grill,” famed for its popcorn chicken; others offer McDonald’s or Subway. But other than that, every detail, from personnel policies to floor layout, is dictated by corporate headquarters in Bentonville.

An example: In 2000, I worked for three weeks in the ladies’ wear department of a Wal-Mart in Minnesota. (Full disclosure: This makes me part of the class now suing Wal-Mart for sex discrimination, though the possibility of an eventual payout in the high two-figure range has not, I think, influenced my judgment on these matters.) In the course of my work, I made a number of sensible suggestions to my supervisor — for example, that the plus-size women’s jeans not be displayed at what was practically floor-level, where plus-size women could not reach them without requiring assistance to regain altitude. Good idea, my supervisor said, but it was up to Bentonville to determine where the jeans, like all other items, resided.

Much has changed since my tenure at Wal-Mart. The company has struggled to upgrade its image from sweatshop to a green and healthful version of Target. It has vowed to promote more women. But one thing it hasn’t done, as far as anyone knows, is to reconfigure itself as an anarchist collective. Bentonville still rules absolutely, over both store managers and “associates,” which is the winsome Wal-Mart term for its chronically underpaid workers, some of whom report that they are still being forced to work off the clock, for no pay at all, just as I found in 2000.

So if Wal-Mart is a life-form, it is an unclassifiable one, at least in ordinary terrestrial terms. It eats, devouring acre after acre and town after town. It grows without limit, sometimes assuming new names — Walmex in Mexico, Asda in the U.K. — to trick the unwary. Yet in its defense in the Dukes v. Wal-Mart suit, Wal-Mart claims to have no idea what it’s doing. This could be a metaphor for capitalism or perhaps a sign that a successful alien invasion is in progress. The only thing that’s for sure is, should the Supreme Court decide in favor of Wal-Mart, we’ll have a lot more of these creatures running around: monstrously oversized “persons” who insist that they can’t control their own actions.

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of several books, including Nickel and Dimed and Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America

Lifting the Veil: The Democratic Party As The Graveyard Of Social Movements

Lifting the Veil: Obama and the Failure of Capitalist Democracy

“Lifting the Veil is the long overdue film that powerfully, definitively, and finally exposes the deadly 21st century hypocrisy of U.S. internal and external policies, even as it imbues the viewer with a sense of urgency and an actualized hope to bring about real systemic change while there is yet time for humanity and this planet. See this film!”
-Larry Pinkney
Editorial Board Member & Columnist
The Black Commentator

Sub-headed “Barack Obama and the failure of capitalist democracy”, this film explores the historical role of the Democratic Party as the “graveyard of social movements”, the massive influence of corporate finance in elections, the absurd disparities of wealth in the United States, the continuity and escalation of neocon policies under Obama, the insufficiency of mere voting as a path to reform, and differing conceptions of democracy itself.

Original interview footage derives from Noam Chomsky, Michael Parenti, Michael Albert, John Stauber (PR Watch), Sharon Smith (Historian), William I. Robinson (Editor, Critical Globalization Studies), Morris Berman (Author, Dark Ages America), and famed black panther Larry Pinkney.

Non-original interviews/lectures include Michael Hudson, Paul Craig Roberts, Ted Rall, Richard Wolff, Glen Ford, Lewis Black, Glenn Greenwald, George Carlin, Gerald Cliente, Chris Hedges, John Pilger, Bernie Sanders, Sheldon Wollin and Martin Luther King.

Visit http://metanoia-films.org/compilations.php for more info.

May Day, 2011, Chicago: A Time To Remember, A Time To Dream A New World

[On this, the 125th Anniversary of Haymarket, it is appropriate and exciting to find all the work being done to rededicate the monuments where the martyrs are buried.  We are delighted to share the list of activities shown below.  May Day is the time of year when workers celebrate, “the only truly universal day of all humanity,” as Eduardo Galeano wrote in The Book of Embraces.  It is also the time of year when the workers movement comes together to evaluate where we are, and what are the tasks that face us.  It should be transparently clear that corporations, in the name of defending their private property, are slicing away all the gains made in this country since the first general strikes of 1876, the legacy of the end of the Civil War and the precursor to Haymarket.  Every great movement for human liberation in the United States can be traced back to these two fundamental processes:  the movement to overturn slavery and the workers’ movement.  It is the singular characteristic of our time to see these two great torrents of liberation fuse in a desperate awakening of a new class ejected from public as well as private employment by bloodless, robotic technology. The end of the American Civil War was indeed a nodal point in our history, marked by a change from an agricultural to and industrial economy and reflected by a shift in political parties to the domination of the industrial and financial sectors in those parties.  It took another 70 years and two World Wars for the financial sector’s domination to establish itself and another political party shift to take place.  Now, 150 years after the end of the Civil War, another nodal shift is taking place.  It has been a long, difficult process of technological innovation.  Many times before the utopian cry of productivity reducing the need for labor has been raised, only to be lost in the expansion of capitalism and new markets.  But what to do when the global market has been saturated and “demand” — expressed in money available for purchase of commodities — has dried up? When the electronic manifestations of workers that we call “robots” do not need clothes, housing or food?  These are the trenchant May Day 2011 discussions that need to be held as we evaluate the legislative attacks on workers throughout the country, emanating from what has become known as the rust belt.  May Day is time to think strategically! — Lew Rosenbaum]

Schedule of May Day Activities

April 7 3:00 PM Gage Gallery 18 s. Michigan. Forum on 100th anniversary of Triangle Shirtwast Fire in New York. Textile organizing and unionization grow out of Chicago Struggle.

April 9th 3:00 Pm. Chicago Temple Washington and Clark. New New Deal Forum with John Conyers on Full employment legislation.

April 12 7:00pm Oak Park Public Library Forum on meaning of restoration of Haymarket Martyrs Monument in Forest Park.

April 27th 6:00pm. Haymarket Brewery and Pub at Randolph and Halsted . Film Screening of Sacco and Vanzetti

April 28th 5:30 pm Newberry library. Forum and debate and reception with labor movement lawyers the American Constitution Society and others discussing Haymarket to the present.

April 29th 5:30 pm Gage Gallery Reception for International Trade unionists and public and release of new publication of The Day Will Come by Mark Rogovin and viewing of his fathers photos, Milton Rogovin.

April 30th, 2pm. Plaque dedication at Haymarket Square at Randolph and DesPlaines by Illinois Labor History Society and re enactment of the Haymarket Tragedy at the site followed by gathering of all who wish to come to Haymarket Brewery at Halsted and Randolph.

May 1, 1 pm, World wide gathering to celebrate 125th anniversary of the Haymarket and the restoration of the Monument in Forest Park featuring AFL-CIO secretary Treasurer Liz Shuler and other dignitaries.

May 1, 7PM  Old Town School of Folk Music concert titled Music and Rebellion with Bucky Halker, his band, and some international groups. Tickets are 15 dollars.

Teachers Union Claims Victory; So Does the School Board; Substance News Clarifies the Confusion

LEGAL VICTORY FOR TEACHERS’ RIGHTS IN CHICAGO… Seventh Circuit affirms Chicago teachers’ tenure rights as property rights … but CPS press release claims the decision vindicates the Board’s side!

George N. Schmidt – March 29, 2011

CHICAGO. MARCH 29, 2011. The Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision on March 29, 2011, affirming the contention by the Chicago Teachers Union that teachers who were laid off by the Board during the summer of 2010 because of what the Board called an “economic layoff” had tenure rights, a property right. The decision affirms a lower court ruling in favor of the teachers and orders the Board to comply. However, by evening on the day the decision was issued, the two sides were in a major disagreement about what precisely the decision requires the Board to do in relation to the hundreds of teachers who are still out of their jobs as a result of the massive layoffs of the summer of 2010.

The extensive 35-page decision upholds the union’s contention that the teachers laid off between June and September 2010 had a property right, because they had tenure, and that the Board therefore had the responsibility to have rules governing both the layoffs and the rehirings.

The Board of Education contended that because it claimed a controversial “economic emergency” (affirmed by the Board at a special meeting on June 15, 2010) it did not have to honor the tenure rights of the teachers it wanted to get rid of, nor did it have to rehire those teachers. By the end of the summer of 2010, the Chicago Board of Education, at the time under the leadership of Chief Executive Officer Ron Huberman, laid off more than 1,300 veteran teachers. Within four months, the Board had hired more than that number of novice teachers, ignoring hundreds of those who had been the victims of the earlier layoffs in its hiring following the opening of schools in September 2010  [Read more here]

Memo to Chicago School Board: Stop Violating Teachers’ Due Process Rights

Tenure Rights Restored in Chicago

03/29/2011 from the CTU web site

Teachers won an important battle in the war for quality schools today. The right for teachers to due process in terminations–tenure–has been restored. President Lewis urged CPS to take this opportunity to begin building trust with its teachers and PSRPs by implementing a fair recall policy immediately as ordered by the court today. CPS fired 1,300 teachers and 500 PSRPs last summer.

“We hope that the nation is watching,” said President Lewis.  “The concerted efforts in Wisconsin, Florida, Indiana and here in Illinois to turn teaching into a low-wage, high-turnover job cheats students and only serves business interests that want education on the cheap.   Experience counts and we must value the expert knowledge that comes with that experience once again.  All students deserve the most highly-qualified, experienced teachers available.”

Today’s decision upholds the October ruling by the U.S. District Court which ordered the Board to:

(1) rescind the discharge of tenured teachers, giving fired teachers the opportunity to be part of the recall process once established,

(2) develop a recall policy, and

(3) forbid the Board from any similar unlawful discharges in the future.

According to CTU lawyer Tom Geoghegan, “This is the second court in a little over five months to rule that the Board of Education has fired hundreds of teachers in violation of their constitutional rights.  We think the Board should end this litigation now and establish a recall policy consistent with the weighted criteria in the Illinois School Code and return these unlawfully fired teachers to their jobs.”

Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador: On The Anniversary of His Assassination, March 24 1980

[Today’s Democracy Now with Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzales explores the meaning of President Obama’s trip to Latin America with Allan Nairn.  Nairn is an historian whose writing exposed the connection between the United States and the Salvadoran death squads and, specifically, with the asassination of Archbishop Romero.  It was 31 years ago today that the Archbishop was killed by the death squads.  Six days later, at his funeral, a quarter of a million people defied the dictatorship and gathered to pay homage to the murdered priest.  Snipers on rooftops opened fire killing 42 people.  In the decade before the assassination, rebel groups in El Salvador came together to form various coalition organizations within which opposition to the government could be expressed.  Militarily this was coordinated through the (underground and, of course, illegal) Farabundo Martin Front for National Liberation (FMLN).  The most effective legal organization was called the BPR, or the Bloque Popular Revolucionario.  Within the BPR the trade unions played a very significant role.  Within the revolution in Central America as a whole, poetry played a vital role: witness the dedication of martyrs Otto Rene Castillo in Guatemala and Roque Dalton in El Salvador itself.  We commemorate the death of Oscar Romero as we remember the role that art and artists have always played as part of the revolution, as part of workers movements.

The story below was published a year ago on the 30th anniversary of Romero’s brutal murder. Click here to read the transcript/view the Democracy Now Video — Lew Rosenbaum]

Joseph A. Palermo

Joseph A. Palermo

Author/Associate Professor of History

Posted: March 24, 2010 11:22 AM HuffingtonPost

Archbishop Oscar Romero: Thirty Years and Little Learned

Thirty years ago, Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador was assassinated in the early evening at the tiny church, Divina Providencia. The day before he was killed, at the Cathedral of San Salvador, he had ended a sermon with words he directed at Salvadoran soldiers and police:

“I would like to make an appeal in a special way to the men of the army, to the police, to those in the barracks. Brothers, you are part of our own people. You kill your own campesino brothers and sisters. And before an order to kill that a man may give, the law of God must prevail that says: Thou shalt not kill! No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the law of God. No one has to fulfill an immoral law. It is time to recover your consciences and to obey your consciences rather than the orders of sin. The church, defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of human dignity, the dignity of the person, cannot remain silent before such abomination. We want the government to take seriously that reforms are worth nothing when they come about stained with so much blood. In the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuously, I beg you, I ask you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!”

A single shot rang out and pierced Romero’s heart. As he bled to death those around him believed they knew what forces in Salvadoran society were responsible for the crime. Church and human rights groups recognized the killing as the familiar work of right-wing death squads. The Washington Post and other U.S. news outlets reported that Romero’s assassination might have been the work of “leftist” rebels.

Archbishop Romero had sent several letters to President Jimmy Carter pleading with him to stop all U.S. aid to what he considered a murderous regime. The day after Romero’s funeral, which itself was marred by violence when armed men in plainclothes fired into a crowd of mourners, Carter approved an increase in “non-lethal” U.S. aid to the Salvadoran government, which included cargo trucks, radar, riot control gear, and night-vision tracking equipment. Three days before he left office, Carter lifted the ban on U.S. arms sales to El Salvador.

When President Ronald Reagan came to power he poured even larger amounts of arms and money into the Salvadoran civil war making El Salvador the single largest recipient of U.S. aid in Latin America. Military assistance went from $5.9 million in fiscal year 1980 to $35.5 million in 1981, and then to $82 million the following year. During this same period, economic aid to El Salvador went from $58.3 million in 1980 to $114 million in 1981, and then to $182.2 million in 1982. [Americas Watch]

In the U.S. Senate, North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, who was then the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, heaped high praise on Salvadoran Major Roberto D’Aubuisson and his men for being staunch allies in the fight against communism. Senator Helms’s blandishments came despite evidence that suggested elements of D’Aubuisson’s paramilitary organization were possibly responsible for murdering Romero. The career diplomat, Robert White, who was Carter’s ambassador to El Salvador called D’Aubuisson and his armed supporters “pathological killers.”

The killing in El Salvador escalated after Romero’s death. In late 1981, when reports surfaced that the U.S.-backed “Atlacatl Battalion” of the Salvadoran Army massacred peasants near the village of El Mozote, both the Salvadoran government and the Reagan Administration denied it happened. The El Mozote massacre had left 767 men, women, and children dead.

Americas Watch, the nonprofit human rights organization that monitors Latin America, estimated that in El Salvador right-wing death squads tied to the government’s security services were responsible for killing 30,000 people. And in 1991, a “truth commission” sponsored by the United Nations made clear that the Salvadoran military and the death squads were “one and the same.”

In the United States, the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) emerged in 1981 as an umbrella organization of peace activists, clergy, and other groups that worked with refugees who were fleeing the bloodshed and seeking asylum. Each year CISPES activists held candlelight vigils on the anniversary of Archbishop Romero’s slaying. The first one took place on March 24, 1981.

And what did those who formulate United States foreign policy learn from the carnage in El Salvador? The same thing they should have learned from Vietnam: Whenever the United States sticks its nose into another country’s civil war it only raises the level of death and destruction making the politics all the more intractable. And in the end it achieves very little other than what could have been worked out peacefully in the first place.

We recently heard that the “conservative” members of the Texas State Board of Education voted to erase Archbishop Oscar Romero from children’s history textbooks, which is an ironic decision since their hero, Ronald Reagan, believed that Central America was the “front line” against the spread of Soviet communism in the Western Hemisphere.

Today, American drone aircraft are engaging in “targeted assassinations” in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere. More often than not these strikes result in the killing and maiming of innocent people, including women and children. On the one hand, Pentagon officials tell us the war in Afghanistan is about 85 percent political and only 15 percent military and that the only path to success is to win the hearts and minds of the people, to build schools and clinics, provide jobs and build infrastructure, and help improve the lives of regular people. While on the other hand, these same Pentagon officials tell us that the means to accomplish this noble and just end must include blowing away women and children with an endless barrage of drone attacks. They seem incapable of seeing, like in El Salvador in the 1980s, that escalating the violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan will do little to address the underlying social and political problems that produced the conflict in the first place.

Archbishop Oscar Romero gave his life trying to prevent a bloodbath in the country he loved. He tried to shield his people from the U.S.-backed repression, consistent with his mission as the top Catholic cleric in the country. Romero’s liberation theology didn’t arise from abstract ideological or canonical principles but was grounded in his seeing all around him the crushing poverty, hungry children, and innocent victims of class violence in El Salvador. Despite the actions of the mighty Texas Board of Education to erase his memory, Archbishop Romero will be long remembered as a friend of the oppressed, a champion of the poor, an advocate of peace, and a tribune for justice.

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire at 100: Horror Resonates — by the Associated Press

100 Years After Triangle Fire, Horror Resonates

by The Associated Press

In this photo taken March 9, 2011, Susan Harris poses for a picture near the graves of victims of the March 25, 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire at Mt. Zion Cemetery in New York. Harris is the granddaughter of Max Blanck, of an owner of the factory, and has been very involved in the remembrance of the tragedy.  

Associated PressIn this photo taken March 9, 2011, Susan Harris poses for a picture near the graves of victims of the March 25, 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire at Mt. Zion Cemetery in New York. Harris is the granddaughter of Max Blanck, of an owner of the factory, and has been very involved in the remembrance of the tragedy. 

In this photo taken March 9, 2011, Susan Harris looks for the graves of victims of the March 25, 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire at Mt. Zion Cemetery in New York. Harris is the granddaughter of Max Blanck, of an owner of the factory, and has been very involved in the remembrance of the tragedy.  

Associated PressIn this photo taken March 9, 2011, Susan Harris looks for the graves of victims of the March 25, 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire at Mt. Zion Cemetery in New York. Harris is the granddaughter of Max Blanck, of an owner of the factory, and has been very involved in the remembrance of the tragedy. 

In this photo taken March 9, 2011, Susan Harris, right, and Michael Harris look at the tombstones of victims  of the March 25, 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire at Mt. Zion Cemetery in New York. Harris is the granddaughter of Max Blanck, of an owner of the factory, and has been very involved in the remembrance of the tragedy.  

Associated PressIn this photo taken March 9, 2011, Susan Harris, right, and Michael Harris look at the tombstones of victims of the March 25, 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire at Mt. Zion Cemetery in New York. Harris is the granddaughter of Max Blanck, of an owner of the factory, and has been very involved in the remembrance of the tragedy..

 

In this photo taken March 9, 2011, Susan Harris touches the tombstone of a victim of the March 25, 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire at Mt. Zion Cemetery in New York. Harris is the granddaughter of Max Blanck, of an owner of the factory, and has been very involved in the remembrance of the tragedy.  

Associated PressIn this photo taken March 9, 2011, Susan Harris touches the tombstone of a victim of the March 25, 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire at Mt. Zion Cemetery in New York. Harris is the granddaughter of Max Blanck, of an owner of the factory, and has been very involved in the remembrance of the tragedy. 

In this photo taken March 9, 2011, Susan Harris touches the tombstones of victims of the March 25, 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire at Mt. Zion Cemetery in New York. Harris is the granddaughter of Max Blanck, of an owner of the factory, and has been very involved in the remembrance of the tragedy.  

Associated PressIn this photo taken March 9, 2011, Susan Harris touches the tombstones of victims of the March 25, 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire at Mt. Zion Cemetery in New York. Harris is the granddaughter of Max Blanck, of an owner of the factory, and has been very involved in the remembrance of the tragedy. 

This image provided by Newspaperarchive.com shows a detail from the front page of the San Antonio Light newspaper edition of Sunday, March 26, 1911, with headlines the day after the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in New York. One hundred years ago, horrified onlookers watched as workers leapt to their deaths from the raging fire in the garment factory. The fire killed 146 workers, mainly youn... 

Associated PressThis image provided by Newspaperarchive.com shows a detail from the front page of the San Antonio Light newspaper edition of Sunday, March 26, 1911, with headlines the day after the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in New York. One hundred years ago, horrified onlookers watched as workers leapt to their deaths from the raging fire in the garment factory. The fire killed 146 workers, mainly young immigrant women and girls, and became a touchstone for the organized labor movement, spurred fire-safety laws and shed light on the lives of immigrant workers. 

 This family photo provided by Eileen Nevitt shows her grandmother, former Triangle Shirtwaist fire survivor Annie Sprinsock, with her infant son Morton Boisen in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1917.  Speaking of the fire of 100 years ago that killed 146, Nevitt said of the workers, "They were panic-stricken. It was hellacious, and they ran for their lives the best they could."  

Associated PressThis family photo provided by Eileen Nevitt shows her grandmother, former Triangle Shirtwaist fire survivor Annie Sprinsock, with her infant son Morton Boisen in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1917. Speaking of the fire of 100 years ago that killed 146, Nevitt said of the workers, “They were panic-stricken. It was hellacious, and they ran for their lives the best they could.” 

FILE - In this 1911 file photo  provided by the National Archives, labor union members gather to protest and mourn the loss of life in the March 25, 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York. One hundred years ago, horrified onlookers watched as workers leapt to their deaths from the raging fire in the garment factory. The fire killed 146 workers, mainly young immigrant women and girls,... 

Associated PressFILE – In this 1911 file photo provided by the National Archives, labor union members gather to protest and mourn the loss of life in the March 25, 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York. One hundred years ago, horrified onlookers watched as workers leapt to their deaths from the raging fire in the garment factory. The fire killed 146 workers, mainly young immigrant women and girls, and became a touchstone for the organized labor movement, spurred fire-safety laws and shed light on the lives of immigrant workers. 

FILE - In this March 1911 file photo, family members try to identify the dead victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of March 25, 1911 in New York.  One hundred years ago, horrified onlookers watched as workers leapt to their deaths from the raging fire in the garment factory. The fire killed 146 workers, mainly young immigrant women and girls, and became a touchstone for the organized... 

Associated PressFILE – In this March 1911 file photo, family members try to identify the dead victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of March 25, 1911 in New York. One hundred years ago, horrified onlookers watched as workers leapt to their deaths from the raging fire in the garment factory. The fire killed 146 workers, mainly young immigrant women and girls, and became a touchstone for the organized labor movement, spurred fire-safety laws and shed light on the lives of immigrant workers. 

FILE - This 1911 file photo shows the burned out remains of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York's Greenwich Village neighborhood. One hundred years ago, horrified onlookers watched as workers leapt to their deaths from the raging fire in the garment factory. The fire killed 146 workers, mainly young immigrant women and girls, and became a touchstone for the organized labor movement, spu... 

Associated PressFILE – This 1911 file photo shows the burned out remains of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York’s Greenwich Village neighborhood. One hundred years ago, horrified onlookers watched as workers leapt to their deaths from the raging fire in the garment factory. The fire killed 146 workers, mainly young immigrant women and girls, and became a touchstone for the organized labor movement, spurred fire-safety laws and shed light on the lives of immigrant workers. 

FILE - In this March 25, 1911 file photo, firefighters work to put out the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York's Greenwich Village neighborhood. One hundred years ago, horrified onlookers watched as workers leapt to their deaths from the raging fire in the garment factory. The fire killed 146 workers, mainly young immigrant women and girls, and became a touchstone for the organi... 

Associated PressFILE – In this March 25, 1911 file photo, firefighters work to put out the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York’s Greenwich Village neighborhood. One hundred years ago, horrified onlookers watched as workers leapt to their deaths from the raging fire in the garment factory. The fire killed 146 workers, mainly young immigrant women and girls, and became a touchstone for the organized labor movement, spurred fire-safety laws and shed light on the lives of immigrant workers. 

NEW YORK March 22, 2011, 05:36 am ET

It was a warm spring Saturday when dozens of immigrant girls and women leapt to their deaths — some with their clothes on fire, some holding hands — as horrified onlookers watched the Triangle Shirtwaist factory burn.

The March 25, 1911, fire that killed 146 workers became a touchstone for the organized labor movement, spurred laws that required fire drills and shed light on the lives of young immigrant workers near the turn of the century.

The 100th anniversary comes as public workers in Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere protest efforts to limit collective bargaining rights in response to state budget woes. Labor leaders and others say one need only look to the Triangle fire to see why unions are crucial.

“This is a story that needs to be told and retold,” said Cecilia Rubino, the writer-director of “From the Fire,” an oratorio inspired by the Triangle fire. “We don’t have that many moments in our history where you see so clearly the gears of history shift.”

To mark the centennial, hundreds of theatrical performances, museum exhibits, lectures, poetry readings, rallies and panel discussions are taking place nationwide. Two documentaries have aired on TV; PBS’ “Triangle Fire” premiered Feb. 28 and HBO’s “Triangle: Remembering the Fire” on Monday.

Descendants of victims and survivors of the fire will gather Friday for a procession to the site in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. The building now houses New York University classrooms and labs.

Suzanne Pred Bass, a Manhattan psychotherapist and theater producer, is the great-niece of Katie Weiner, who survived the Triangle fire, and of Rose Weiner, who did not.

Bass ticked off the reasons why people remain fascinated by the Triangle fire after 100 years.

“It’s the youth of these women,” she said. “It’s the tragedy, it’s the changes it spawned and it’s the immigrant experience.”

The fire started at end of the workday and raced from the eighth floor to the ninth and 10th. As hundreds of workers — mainly Jewish and Italian immigrant women and girls, the youngest 14 — tried to escape, they found a crucial door apparently locked.

“They were panic-stricken,” said Eileen Nevitt, whose grandmother Annie Sprinsock survived. “It was hellacious, and they ran for their lives the best they could.”

Firefighters rushed to the scene and raised their ladders, which reached only to the sixth floor. The fire was under control in 18 minutes — too late.

At the trial later that year of Triangle owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris on manslaughter charges, survivors testified that their escape had been blocked by a locked door on the ninth floor. Some said the door was kept locked to prevent theft.

Katie Weiner said she felt for the door, which she could not see in the smoke, and turned the knob.

“I pushed it toward myself and I couldn’t open it and then I pushed it inward and it wouldn’t go and I then cried out, ‘The door is locked!'” she testified.

Meanwhile, the elevator shuttled up and down carrying as many workers as could cram into it. Weiner joined the crush for the last elevator but was pushed back. She testified that she grabbed the elevator cable and threw herself in, landing on girls’ heads. She was the last person out of the burning building.

The jury heard from 155 witnesses before returning a verdict of not guilty.

“I believed that the door was locked at the time of the fire,” one juror said. “But we couldn’t find them guilty unless we believed they knew the door was locked.”

Workers’ advocates continued to blame Blanck and Harris, who had resisted a union drive in 1909.

Blanck’s granddaughter Susan Harris said she is saddened when people demonize her grandfather, who died before she was born

“It’s really important for them, I think, to have a villain,” she said.

Blanck and Harris were on the 10th floor when the fire started and were able to escape to the roof. But several of Susan Harris’ relatives died in the fire, including Jacob, Essie and Morris Bernstein, members of Blanck’s wife’s family who worked at Triangle.

Harris lives in Los Angeles but is spending March in New York to take part in Triangle commemorations. An artwork she created to honor the fire victims — made of antique shirtwaists and handkerchiefs — will be displayed at the New York City Fire Museum for a month.

One witness to the Triangle workers’ death plunges was Frances Perkins, who later became the first female Cabinet member when President Franklin Roosevelt appointed her secretary of labor. Perkins was having tea nearby and heard the commotion. She ran to the scene as the first body hit the ground.

“That fire is the event that changed her life and that really changed the course of American history,” said Kirsten Downey, author of a book about Perkins, “The Woman Behind the New Deal.”

Perkins was appointed to the Factory Investigating Commission, convened in response to the Triangle fire, and the panel held hearings all over New York state before drafting 20 laws aimed at improving workplace safety. Some of the new laws required fire drills, set occupancy limits in buildings and required exit signs to be clearly posted.

“Policies that were enacted because of that fire permeate American workplaces now,” Downey said.

Days after the Triangle fire, 100,000 mourners marched in a funeral procession through the streets of New York, while another 250,000 lined the route. Their grief built support for the right of garment workers to unionize.

“It created a strong garment workers union,” said Bruce Raynor, president of Workers United, the 21st-century heir to the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. “It helped to really start the modern labor movement.”

He said the Triangle fire commemoration resonates strongly today, given the labor struggles across the country and in Wisconsin, where a law passed this month limits public workers’ collective bargaining rights.

“One hundred years later, 150,000 people are protesting in Madison, Wis., over the same issue,” he said: “the right of working people to organize.”

————

Online:

http://www.rememberthetrianglefire.org

http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire

Triangle Shirtwaist Fire at 100

http://www.npr.org/2011/03/24/134814089/Triangle-Fire-Remembrance

100 Years After Triangle Fire, Are Workers Safer?

by Joel Rose

March 24, 2011 on NPR morning edition

March 24, 2011

This week marks 100 years since a fire at the Triangle Waist Company factory in New York City killed 146 people, most of them poor young women. The event is often cited as the catalyst for modern workplace safety rules, and a major boost to the nascent union movement. A century later, the debate over the nation’s labor laws continues to rage.

Copyright © 2011 National Public Radio®. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Tomorrow marks 100 years since a terrible fire in New York City, a fire that had far-reaching implications for working conditions in this country. It was called the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. It killed 146 people, most of them young women. A century later, the Triangle fire is the subject of a week of commemorations. The events come at a time when the fight over the nation’s labor laws is again in the spotlight. From New York, NPR’s Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE: March 25, 1911 was a warm day in New York. It was a Saturday, the last day of the work week for the hundreds of young Jewish and Italian women, some as young as 14, who sewed women’s dresses at the Triangle Waist Company near Washington Square. Many were collecting their pay and getting ready to leave when the fire broke out.

Ms. MINNIE JACOBSEN: You heard this screaming, yelling fire, fire. So I says to my friend, Eva, let’s run. So she says, no. I says, you come with me. So I took her by the hand and we went.

ROSE: Years later, Minnie Jacobsen told an NPR producer how she managed to escape. But 146 others weren’t so lucky. The Triangle factory occupied the eighth, ninth and tenth floors of a modern skyscraper a block east of Washington Square. As hundreds of girls rushed to get out, the fire escape and elevators failed. And Dartmouth College historian Annelise Orleck says the door to the stairwell on the ninth floor was locked.

Professor ANNELISE ORLECK (Dartmouth College): People began to jump out of the windows. And you could smell blood and smoke and hear breaking bones. The whole thing was over in a half hour. But the horror was so extreme that no one who saw it would ever forget it.

ROSE: Thousands of New Yorkers watched powerlessly from the streets, and hundreds of thousands more turned out to watch a funeral procession for the victims a few days later. The Triangle Fire eventually led to tougher workplace safety rules in New York and nationwide. And Orleck says it helped boost the cause of labor unions around the country.

Prof. ORLECK: There have been bigger disasters. There have been more recent disasters. But the faces of those girls, the stories of those girls, gave a resonance that other disaster didn’t have. And so many people, myself included, felt this was an important moment to talk about what this fire tells us about why unions are necessary.

ROSE: The 100th anniversary of the Triangle fire is prompting a new outpouring of sympathy for those girls, from a memorial ceremony on Friday to talks, conferences and artistic performances.

Many of those events have been planned for several years, but they come at a time when the U.S. labor movement is on the defensive, with legislatures in Wisconsin and elsewhere voting to strip public workers of their rights to collective bargaining.

Mr. DAVID VON DREHLE (Author, “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America”): The Triangle fire speaks to the kind of quandary that labor finds itself in today.

ROSE: David Von Drehle is the author of “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America.”

Mr. VON DREHLE: There’s a kind of an existential crisis as labor leaders look at the 21st century and try to ask how can unions be as relevant to workers today as they were 100 years ago.

ROSE: Today the garment industry has largely left New York for countries in Asia and elsewhere, countries that have fewer protections for workers. Just last year, dozens of factory workers jumped to their deaths at a factory fire in Bangladesh, an event Dartmouth historian Annelise Orleck finds eerily familiar.

Prof. ORLECK: This is not ancient history. It’s very real. It’s very present and it’s in all of our closets.

ROSE: That’s a point Orleck and others hope to make this week as they honor the victims of the Triangle fire.

Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

Copyright © 2011 National Public Radio®. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR’s prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

The Fire That Changed America: Triangle at 100