Plus Ça Change: Triangle Shirtwaist and Rana Plaza

by Joe White
triangle building

The horrible deaths of over 1,100 clothing workers in Bangladesh bear more than a passing resemblance to the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of l9ll in which l46 garment workers perished. In certain key respects nothing has changed over the last l00 years. In both New York l9ll and Bangladesh 2013 the distinguishing characteristics of garment manufacturing were low capital entry levels, cut-throat competition, utterly atrocious wages and working conditions, and bosses who ranked with coal mine owners when it came to respect for human life. Both then and now, these catastrophes were completely avoidable as well as being completely predictable.

Yet another parallel is that there were unheeded warnings. Fires in the shirtwaist sector of the New York City garment trade were nothing new; smaller building collapses had already occurred in South Asia’s 21st century version of 7th Avenue. The sheer magnitude of the catastrophe raises an alarming question: Can it be that things are actually worse for working people throughout the world than they were l00 years ago? Twenty-five years ago such a conclusion would have been implausible if not downright unthinkable. For people on the left, (though of course polls don’t get taken on things like this), the consensus seems to have been that world history had entered a period of transition from capitalism to socialism—however long and messy that transition might turn out to be. But who’s going to bet the price of a six-pack on that in 2013?

A century ago, an upsurge in trade union organization and militancy among garment workers—the “Uprising of the l0,000”— preceded the Triangle Fire, the occurrence of which only strengthened the resolve of the workers and their allies to ensure that nothing like this would ever happen again. This was also the Progressive Era in American and New York State politics. Major protective—and effective—legislation was rapidly passed. Unionization proved to be permanent for the next half century even if the New York garment trade never did become a high-wage industry for all of its workpeople.

The division of labor remained rigidly gendered in terms of wages and occupational specialty, as the highly paid cutters and pressers remained the exclusive bailiwick of men, despite the fact that there were no reasons technological or otherwise why women couldn’t do the work just as well as males. And as Irving Howe argued decades ago, “The fierce ideological struggles in the l920s between communists and social democrats bought little credit to either side.”

How does Bangladesh compare? It’s still too early to predict the long term consequences and there certainly are many signs that the clothing workers of Bangladesh are fully committed to seeing that nothing like this ever happen again. But one can’t help but noticing two things. The first is the profound inadequacy of measures taken so far on the part of governments (The Obama administration and the European Union) and the globalized mega-retailers of the 21st century (Walmart, Gap, Target)

Then there is the Bangladesh government, whose recent factory and labor legislation passed in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster is in some respects worse than the status quo ante. . It used to be the hope and expectation of some of us that all but the most degenerate postcolonial regimes could be expected to give at least give lip service to the claim that they were ruling in the interests of the vast majority of their citizens. Others, however, thought— and continue to think—that the sell-by date of the nation state as a progressive force in human affairs is well in the past. They may be right after all.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that news nowadays travels far and fast. It’s not a stretch to say that the whole world is watching. And that can only be a good thing. What can we do to help? It’s usually a good idea to build on what folks are already doing. A considerable number of people in this country refuse to shop at Walmart—enough to keep Walmart’s number crunchers and TV commercial writers busy. They ought to be encouraged to keep on doing what they’re already doing. A second, closely related proposal would be to treat garments with the label “Made in Bangladesh” as an anti-union label: If you see it, don’t buy it. Unless it comes from one of the brand name manufacturers or retailers, mainly European, that have signed the legally enforceable multilateral Accord on Fire and Building Safety (details)

In conclusion, it strongly appears that in the last l00 years the capitalist leopard has not changed most of its spots—either in the developing world or in what Paul Gilroy has called the overdeveloped world—that is, us. Bangladesh is one more reason why for lots of people socialism is or ought to be back on the agenda.

Joe White cultivates his garden in Harmony, PA

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