Chris Mahin writes: The Triangle Shirtwaist fire and the origins of International Women’s Day  

The Triangle Shirtwaist fire and the origins of International Women’s Day  

BY CHRIS MAHIN

 There were no fire extinguishers. Flammable materials were stored throughout the factory. The building was illuminated by open gas lighting. The ninth floor of the 10-story building had only two doors leading out. By the time the seamstresses there realized the building was on fire, one stairwell was already filling with smoke and flames. The other door had been locked, supposedly to prevent workers from stealing materials or taking breaks. The single fire escape collapsed under the weight of the many desperate people trying to use it. The elevator stopped working.

 Realizing that there was no other way to escape, some of the women broke out windows and jumped to the ground nine stories below.  Others pried open the elevator doors and tumbled down the elevator shaft. (Few survived.) The rest waited until smoke and fire defeated their desperate efforts to save themselves.

 The fire department arrived quickly, but the firefighters were unable to stop the flames. (There were no ladders available that could extend beyond the sixth floor.) The tragedy claimed 146 lives; 91 people died in the fire itself, and 54 died in the falls.

 Most of the dead were young. The average age of the victims was 21. Workers as young as 14 perished that day. Most of the victims were Jewish and Italian immigrant women.

 Every executive of the company got out alive.

 The deaths at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City on the afternoon of March 25, 1911 stunned people across the United States. The fire played an important role in changing the public’s perception of union workers and union organizers. The Women’s Trade Union League and the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union led many of the protests against this tragedy, including the silent funeral march which brought together over 100,000 people.

 The tragedy also intensified the effort – which had begun before the fire – to observe March 8 each year as International Women’s Day.

 For decades before the Triangle fire, rallies, marches, and protests by women workers had taken place in early spring, often in March.

 6963695829_b33ed9e0cc_bOn March 8, 1857, the New York City police attacked and dispersed a demonstration of women garment workers protesting terrible working conditions and low wages. Two years later, again in March, those women garment workers formed their first trade union to protect themselves on the job.

 On March 8, 1908, 15,000 women marched through New York City to demand shorter hours, better pay, an end to child labor – and the right to vote for women.

 In 1910, an international conference of socialist organizations was held in Copenhagen, Denmark. There, Clara Zetkin, a distinguished member of the German Socialist Party, proposed that an International Women’s Day be recognized by all the organizations present at that conference as a way to mark the strike of the garment workers in the United States. Zetkin’s proposal was greeted with unanimous approval by the conference of more than 100 women from 17 countries (including the first three women elected to the parliament of Finland.)

 The decision of the Socialist International’s meeting had an effect. One year later — in 1911 – International Women’s Day was commemorated for the first time in Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland. Over a million women and men took part in rallies. These events took place on March 19, 1911. Less than a week later, the flames poured out of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York.

 The Triangle fire spurred on those who were determined to expose the conditions facing535443654-newrose1 women workers, and gave tremendous impetus to International Women’s Day events. In speeches, newspaper articles, books, and publicity material promoting International Women’s Day events, the terrible conditions which led to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire would be cited again and again as vivid examples of the horrors women workers have to endure in an unjust economic order.

 After many decades in which people around the world commemorated March 8 as International Women’s Day, in 1978, school officials in northern California began an effort to observe Women’s History Week. This caught on. By 1987, the governors of 14 states in the United States had declared March to be Women’s History Month. That same year, the federal government also declared March to be National Women’s History Month.

 This year’s commemorations of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month are especially important because the issues which the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire brought into public view – such as the existence of sweatshops and the exploitation of immigrant workers – still exist. In fact, globalization under the control of a few billionaires has made these problems even worse for the majority of the world’s workers than they were for the workers of New York City in 1911.

 There is much we can learn from the attitude conveyed by Rose Schneiderman, a  prominent socialist and union activist, who spoke to a memorial meeting for the Triangle fire’s victims, held in the Metropolitan Opera House on April 2, 1911. Here are her words, directed to an audience made up largely of well-to-do members of the Women’s Trade Union League, an organization that had provided moral and financial support for some of the first protests at the Triangle factory:

schneiderman_rally “I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting. The old Inquisition had its rack and its thumbscrews and its instruments of torture with iron teeth. We know what these things are today; the iron teeth are our necessities, the thumbscrews are the high-powered and swift machinery close to which we must work, and the rack is here in the firetrap structures that will destroy us the minute they catch on fire.

 “This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city. Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred. There are so many of us for one job it matters little if 146 of us are burned to death.

 “We have tried you, citizens; we are trying you now, and you have a couple of dollars for the sorrowing mothers, brothers, and sisters by way of a charity gift. But every time the workers come out in the only way they know to protest against conditions which are unbearable, the strong hand of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us.

 “Public officials have only words of warning to us – warning that we must be intensely peaceable, and they have the workhouse just back of their warnings. The strong hand of the law beats us back, when we rise, into the conditions that make life unbearable.

 “I can’t talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.”

 Indeed, too much blood has been spilt. Today, as in 1911, it is up to our class to save itself.

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The Battle of Lawrence, 1912: Lessons for Today by Chris Mahin

The Battle of Lawrence, 1912:

Textile workers’ victory contains lessons for today

BY CHRIS MAHIN

“We want bread – and roses!”

“Bayonets cannot weave cloth!”

“Better to starve fighting than to starve working!”

More than a century ago, thousands of men, women, and children shouted those slogans – in many different languages – in the bitter cold of a Massachusetts winter.

On January 12, 1912, thousands of workers walked out of the textile mills of Lawrence, HT_020_004_min_wage_hb_160411_4x3_992Massachusetts and began a strike which lasted until March 24, 1912. At its height, the strike involved 23,000 workers.

Located in the Merrimack River Valley, about 30 miles north of Boston, Lawrence was a city of 86,000 people in 1912, and a great textile center. It outranked all other cities in the production of woolen and worsted goods. The woolen and cotton mills of the city employed over 40,000 workers – about one-half of Lawrence’s population over the age of 14.

Most of the Lawrence textile workers were unskilled. Within a one-mile radius of the mill district, there lived 25 different nationalities, speaking 50 languages. By 1912, Italians, Poles, Russians, Syrians, and Lithuanians had replaced native-born Americans and western Europeans as the predominant groups in the mills. The largest single ethnic group in the city was Italian.

At the time of the strike, 44.6 percent of the textile workers in Lawrence were women. More than 10 percent of the mill workers were under the age of 18.

Despite a heavy tariff protecting the woolen industry, the wages and living standards of textile workers had declined steadily since 1905. The introduction of a two-loom system in the woolen industry and a corresponding speed-up in the cotton industry led to lay-offs, unemployment, and wage reductions. A federal government report showed that for a week in late November 1911, some 22,000 textile employees, including foremen, supervisors, and office workers, averaged about $8.76 for a full week’s work. This wage was totally inadequate, despite the fact that the average work week was 56 hours, and 21.6 percent of the workers worked more hours than that.

To make things worse, the cost of living was higher in Lawrence than in the rest of New Lawrence-kids-1912England. The city was also one of the most congested in the United States, with many workers crowded into foul tenements.

The daily diet of most of the mill workers consisted of bread, molasses, and beans. Serving meat with a meal was very rare, often reserved for holidays. The inevitable result of all this was an unhealthy work force. Dr. Elizabeth Shapleigh, a Lawrence physician, wrote: “A considerable number of the boys and girls die within the first two or three years after beginning work. … [T]hirty-six out of every 100 of all the men and women who work in the mill die before or by the time they are 25.”

The immediate cause of the strike was a cut in pay for all workers which took place after a new state law went into effect on January 1, 1912. The law reduced the number of hours that women and children could work from 56 to 54. The mill owners simply sped up the machines to guarantee they would get the same amount of production as before, and then cut the workers’ hours and wages.

On Thursday, January 11, 1912, some 1,750 weavers left their looms in the Everett Cotton Mill when they learned that they had received less money. They were joined by 100 spinners from the Arlington Mills. When the Italian workers of the Washington Mill left their jobs on the morning of Friday, January 12, the Battle of Lawrence was in full swing. By Saturday night, January 13, some 20,000 textile workers had left their machines. By Monday night, January 15, Lawrence had been transformed into an armed camp, with the police and militia guarding the mills through the night.

The Lawrence strike began as a spontaneous outburst, but the strikers quickly realized that they needed to organize themselves. At a mass meeting held on the afternoon of the strike’s first day, they voted to send a telegram to Joe Ettor, a leader of the Industrial Workers of the World, asking him to come to Lawrence to aid the strike. Ettor arrived in 1912_Lawrence_Textile_Strike_2Lawrence the very next day, accompanied by his friend Arturo Giovannitti, the editor of “Il Proletario” and secretary of the Italian Socialist Federation.

Although only 27 years old, Joseph J. (“Smiling Joe”) Ettor was an experienced, militant leader of the IWW. He had worked with Western miners and migrant workers, and with the immigrant workers of the Eastern steel mills and shoe factories. Ettor could speak English, Italian, and Polish fluently, and could understand Hungarian and Yiddish.

Under Ettor’s leadership, the strikers set up a highly structured but democratic form of organization in which every nationality of worker involved in the strike was represented. This structure played a decisive role in guaranteeing the strike’s outcome. A general strike committee was organized and a network of soup kitchens and food distribution stations were set up. The strikers voted to demand a 15 percent increase in wages, a 54-hour week, double time for overtime, and the abolition of the premium and bonus systems.

Despite the fact that the city and state authorities imposed a virtual state of martial law on Lawrence, the strikers remained undaunted. They pioneered innovative tactics, such as moving picket lines (in which thousands of workers marched through the mill district in an endless chain with signs or armbands reading “Don’t be a scab!”); mass marches on sidewalks; and sending thousands of people to browse in stores without buying anything. They organized numerous parades to keep their own spirits up and keep their cause in the public eye.

The agents of the mill owners struck back. When the police and militia tried to halt a parade of about 1,000 strikers on January 29, a bystander, Annie LoPezzo, was shot dead. Ettor_and_G_postcard_001
Despite the fact that neither Ettor nor Giovannitti had been present at the demonstration, they were both arrested the next day. They were charged with being accessories before the fact to the murder because they had supposedly incited the “riot” which led to the shooting. That same day, an 18-year-old Syrian striker, John Ramy, was killed by a bayonet thrust into his back as he attempted to flee from advancing soldiers.

In early February, the strikers began sending their children out of the city to live temporarily with strike supporters. The city authorities vowed to stop this practice, and on February 24, a group of mothers and their children were clubbed and beaten at the train station by cops. This act horrified the country, and swung the general public over to the side of the strikers.

Concerned that the growing outrage over the conditions in Lawrence might lead to public support for lowering the woolen tariff, the mill owners began to look for a way to end the strike. First the largest employer, the American Woolen Company, came to an agreement. Then the others followed. The workers won most of their demands. By March 24, the strike was officially declared over and the general strike committee disbanded. It was a tremendous victory – but not the end of the battle.

On September 30, 1912, the murder trial of Ettor and Giovannitti began. It lasted 58 days. The defendants were kept in metal cages in the courtroom while the trial was in session. The prosecution accused Ettor and Giovannitti of inciting the strikers to violence and murder. Witnesses proved that the two were speaking to a meeting of workers several miles from the place where Annie LoPezzo was shot. Across the United States and the world, concerned people expressed outrage at the prosecution’s attempt to punish two leaders for their ideas.

Before the end of the trial, Ettor and Giovannitti asked for permission to address the court. Ettor challenged the jurors, declaring that if they were going to sentence Giovannitti and himself to death, the verdict should find them guilty of their real offense – their beliefs.

He said:

“What are my social views? I may be wrong but I contend that all the wealth in this country is the product of labor and that it belongs to labor. My views are the same as Giovannitti’s. We will give all that there is in us that the workers may organize and in due time emancipate themselves, that the mills and workshops may become their property and for their benefit. If we are set at liberty these shall be our views. If you believe that we should not go out, and that view will place the responsibility full upon us, I ask you one favor, that Ettor and Giovannitti because of their ideas became murderers, and that in your verdict you will say plainly, we shall die for it. … I neither offer apology nor ask for a favor. I ask for justice.”

Giovannitti made an impassioned speech to the jury, the first time he had ever spoken publicly in English. His eloquence drew tears from the most jaded reporters present.

On November 25, the jury found the defendants not guilty. Pandemonium broke loose in the courtroom.

There is something especially poignant about the Battle of Lawrence – and something especially important about learning its lessons. The Lawrence textile strike took place at a time when the mill owners lacked maneuvering room because they had to maintain public support for a high tariff on woolens. That was certainly a factor in the workers’ victory. So was the fact that the textile workers comprised such a large percentage of the population of Lawrence. But those factors do not change the reality that the victory at Lawrence was won by the bravery and intelligence of the workers themselves.

The victory at Lawrence disproved the vicious lie being circulated at the time by the leaders of the American Federation of Labor that immigrant workers could not be organized. It showed that immigrant workers and women workers would not only support strikes – if given the chance, they would gladly lead them, and lead them well. The strikers in Lawrence won their demands because they never let themselves be divided on ethnic or gender lines, because they were militant (and creative) in their tactics, and because they found a way to appeal to the conscience of the general public.

One other feature of the Battle of Lawrence made it especially significant. It’s summed up in the famous slogan of the strike – “We want bread – and roses!” The textile workers who braved the Massachusetts winter in 1912 wanted more than a wage increase. They were inspired by a vision of a new society, one where the workers themselves ruled. In this society, every human being would have “bread” – a decent standard of living. They would also have “roses” – the chance to learn, to have access to art, music, and culture; a society which would allow the flowering of everyone’s talents, the full development of every human being.

On this anniversary of the Lawrence textile strike, we should take courage from the bravery of the strikers, learn from their clever tactics, and dare to think as far ahead as they did. The Lawrence strikers believed deeply in the idea expressed so well in one of the verses in the labor song “Solidarity Forever.” That verse confidently proclaims, “We can build a new world from the ashes of the old.” Despite all the misery we see in the present, a new world is possible. The cynics of today are as wrong to deny the possibility of qualitative change as the AFL leaders in 1912 were to deny the possibility of organizing immigrant workers. If all of us act with as much foresight and courage as did those who fought so well in Lawrence in 1912, the vision of those strikers can become reality, and we can win a world with both bread and roses for everyone.

 

 

 

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International Women’s Day

Women’s History Month in The People’s Tribune includes an article from Southern Illinois as well as an article about Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire 100th anniversary.  The first International Working Women’s Day was held March 19, 2011, 100 years ago.  Less than a week later, the Triangle fire killed 146 workers, most of them young women. In 1913 International Women’s Day was relocated to March 8, and has been celebrated on that day since.

 

How It Happened
A Brief History of International Women’s Day
Page 1 | 2 | 3 Lesson Activities

T
he idea of an International Women’s Day first arose at the turn of the century, which in the industrialized world was a period of expansion and turbulence, booming population growth and radical ideologies.
On 8 March 1857, women working in clothing and textile factories (called ‘garment workers’) in New York City, in the United States, staged a protest. They were fighting against inhumane working conditions and low wages. The police attacked the protestors and dispersed them. Two years later, again in March, these women formed their first labour union to try and protect themselves and gain some basic rights in the workplace.

On 8 March 1908, 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter work hours, better pay, voting rights and an end to child labour. They adopted the slogan “Bread and Roses”, with bread symbolizing economic security and roses a better quality of life. In May, the Socialist Party of America designated the last Sunday in February for the observance of National Women’s Day.

Following the declaration of the Socialist Party of America, the first ever National Woman’s Day was celebrated in the United States on 28 February 1909. Women continued to celebrate it on the last Sunday of that month through 1913.

An international conference, held by socialist organizations from around the world, met in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1910. The conference of the Socialist International proposed a Women’s Day which was designed to be international in character. The proposal initially came from Clara Zetkin, a German socialist, who suggested an International Day to mark the strike of garment workers in the United States. The proposal was greeted with unanimous approval by the conference of over 100 women from 17 countries, including the first three women elected to the parliament of Finland. The Day was established to honour the movement for women’s rights, including the right to vote (known as ‘suffrage’). At that time no fixed date was selected for the observance. Click here to read more from the United Nations Cyberschoolbus  (this link no longer works)

International Women’s Day – Alexandra Kollontai

 

Women

First published in 1920, this essay traces the history of international women’s day and its importance to working class struggle with particular focus on the 1917 Russian Revolution.

A militant celebration
Women’s Day or Working Women’s Day is a day of international solidarity, and a day for reviewing the strength and organization of proletarian women.

But this is not a special day for women alone. The 8th of March is a historic and memorable day for the workers and peasants, for all the Russian workers and for the workers of the whole world. In 1917, on this day, the great February revolution broke out.[2] It was the working women of Petersburg who began this revolution; it was they who first decided to raise the banner of opposition to the Tsar and his associates. And so, working women’s day is a double celebration for us.

But if this is a general holiday for all the proletariat, why do we call it “Women’s Day”? Why then do we hold special celebrations and meetings aimed above all at the women workers and the peasant women? Doesn’t this jeopardize the unity and solidarity of the working class? To answer these questions, we have to look back and see how Women’s Day came about and for what purpose it was organized.

How and why was women’s day organised?
Not very long ago, in fact about ten years ago, the question of women’s equality, and the question of whether women could take part in government alongside men was being hotly debated. The working class in all capitalist countries struggled for the rights of working women: the bourgeoisie did not want to accept these rights. It was not in the interest of the bourgeoisie to strengthen the vote of the working class in parliament; and in every country they hindered the passing of laws that gave the right to working women.  To read more click this link.