Triangle Shirtwaist

March 24, 2011


Tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of the New York City Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire.  In that blaze, more than 140 female workers in the ‘needle trades’ lost their lives, many forced to jump from burning windows to their deaths on the hard pavement below.  The workers were mostly young women, many were just teenage girls, of Jewish immigrant families.  The stories and newspaper images of the women’s horrible deaths deeply shocked the entire city, and brought about serious changes in fire safety regulation, as well as spurring important activism by garment workers’ unions.  

The building was sturdy and withstood the blaze, while everything inside was incinerated.  There were no fire escapes, and many internal doors were locked shut to prevent the workers from taking breaks away from their stations.  Such was sweatshop life in those days. 

This was my grandmother’s generation.  My father’s mother was one of five sisters.  The eldest supported the younger ones by working in such places.  One story I recently heard was that one of my favorite (great) aunts refused to go into the trades when her time came – she stayed in school and then high tailed it for California.  Her older sister resented her action for the next sixty  years.  Such choices they faced!

Today the building sits smack dab in the middle of the student scene around Washington Square Park and NYU.

What do French workers want?

October 20, 2010

With all the coverage of the conflict in France between the unions and the government, I have heard little about what the real issues are.  Yes, the unions don’t want their members to be forced to wait until the age of 62 to get full retirement – now they retire at 60.  And yes, that would still be the lowest retirement age in Europe, so, aren’t they just damn lazy?  Surely, they must have a position to counter Sarkozy’s insistence that the state just can’t afford this anymore…

Well, apparently they do.  I found this interesting article about the conflict, and I have excerpted most of it here:

… many workers say they’re prepared to stay the course, in spite of perceptions that they are simply too lazy to accept what would still be the lowest retirement age in Europe.  Two years too many, workers say Jean-Pierre Lesouef, an electronics manager at the transportation giant Thalys, says he has already worked for 37 years and is too tired to work into his 60s.

“I’ve had enough,” he says. “When you’re at my age and you’ve worked as long as I have, you see if you want to work another two years.”

Some experts say complaints like Mr. Lesouef’s go a long way toward explaining why the proposal to add an extra two years to French working life has caused so much upset.  Annual studies for the European Commission looking at attitudes toward work show the French, along with the Italians and the Spanish, are among the unhappiest workers on the continent.

Henri Sterdyniak, an economist at the Paris-based Centre for Economic Research, blames a hierarchical work structure within French companies that rarely allows room for professional development or promotions. Performance reviews are rare and negotiations on working conditions or career paths practically are scarce.

“The French model dictates that if you have a certain diploma you will have a certain career, and if you don’t you will never climb the ladder,” he says. “The worker at the bottom feels like he is constantly squeezed and never consulted. By the end of his career he is exhausted and uninterested, so it’s no wonder he wants to leave.”

Worker satisfaction has also dropped since the 37-hour workweek was introduced, because most people are forced to do the same tasks but in less time, Mr. Sterdyniak says.

Workers like Daniel Quittot, an air conditioning technician, say they’re concerned they will be forced out of their jobs and unable to find new work well before they turn 62. “I’m afraid that if the retirement age goes up, I’ll have two extra years on unemployment and in the end I won’t have worked long enough to collect my full pension,” he says.

Sterdyniak says Mr. Quittot has legitimate fears. Surveys show that unemployment among French workers over 55 rose dramatically when the retirement age was reduced to 60 from 65 in 1983 and is now among the highest in Europe. Although many want to work up to age 60, French employees are on average forced out of their jobs at 58.

“There is a real problem of age discrimination right now in France,” says Sterdyniak. “Unless that changes with the pension reform, we are going to create a whole new problem of unemployment.”

The IWW Speaks

September 7, 2009


Today was a holiday – Labor Day – so I went to see the Great Falls at Paterson, NJ, something I’ve wanted to visit for a long time.  Alexander Hamilton called attention to this site, and got George Washington’s support for a planned industrial city here that would exploit the power of the rushing Passaic River.  After the Civil War, it was one of the most thriving industrial cities in the United States.

Paterson is a severely depressed city now, with few signs of gentrification or working class vibrancy.  The old mill buildings, impressive in their massing, are mostly empty.  The one that used to serve as a major assembly point for locomotives is now a museum.

botto_house Besides the falls, we were drawn to Paterson by this house, the Botto House.  It was the focal point of the six month silk workers strike in 1913 that idled the great textile manufacturers of what was then known as Silk City.  The police force of Paterson totally backed the owners, so worker rallies  there were liable to be met with brutal force.  Mr. Botto,  a skilled weaver from the Piedmont of Italy, offered his house, which he had built for his family, as a meeting point in the town of Haledon next to Paterson.  The mayor was a German immigrant and a socialist, so there was no fear of the police there!

91_botto1 This photo shows the house totally surrounded by thousands of workers who had come to be addressed by the likes of Upton Sinclair, Big Bill Haywood, and a host of international socialist, anarchist, and super radical IWW celebrities.  The strike was remarkable for its size, its duration, and the solidarity of the different national groups (there were many!) and skill levels involved.  Eventually, they were starved back to work, but the strike lived on as a vivid symbol of worker power, and no doubt many an organizer got his training there.

The house, a landmark and museum, is now surrounded by a quiet residential neighborhood, but at the time it was in the middle of a large green bordered by woods that formed a natural ampitheatre.  Botto’s granddaughter lives nearby, and sold the house to the museum in the 1980s.  We stood on the second floor balcony from which the rabble rousers had addressed the crowds.

The uptairs has a room in which to watch a very good short documentary on the strike and the Botto family.  Hard lives these people had – even relatively well off ones like the skilled tradesman Botto – but how many recall their struggles today?  According to the film, Botto was one of a large community of north Italian skilled laborers who brought a strong tradition of activism and agitation to our shores.  I wonder how they passed through the examination of Ellis Island that was supposed to deny access to anarchists and trouble makers?

On the way out, I purchased a facsimile edition of the 1923  I.W.W. Song Book – Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent. I like that title.