Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney want to bring back American manufacturing jobs. Neither has much reassuring detail about how he plans to do that. And both are talking about high-end jobs, not the kind of jobs, once held by new immigrants and migrants from rural areas, that had been outsourced to the people who burned to death in Karachi, Pakistan's Ali Enterprises last month, when at least 289 workers died behind locked doors in a garment factory.
It was a re-run of New York's tragic 1911 Triangle fire. At Triangle, 146 people, most of them young women from Jewish and Italian immigrant families, died when a fire broke out in a pile of cloth scraps. People on the streets saw workers leaping from ninth-floor windows to avoid the flames, knowing they would die on the pavement below. Many more might have gotten out unharmed, but management had locked an exit door.
People had known how to build safer factories for nearly a century, writes David von Drehle in Triangle: the fire that changed America. Overhead sprinklers and a bunch of other safety features were available, but garment factories didn't commonly use them.
More than a hundred years later, not much has changed. The blaze at Ali Enterprises may have been caused by faulty wiring. There, too, workers leapt from high windows to avoid the flames. There, too, many would have survived had potential exit doors not been locked or blockaded by stacks of finished goods.
You could probably walk across a college campus, to say nothing of a shopping mall, and not find one person in ten who could identify the Triangle fire. Labor history doesn't impinge much on American consciousness. And it is being expunged. In Manhattan, some people want to rename the Garment District, the area between 42nd and 35th streets and 7th and 9th avenues, where much of American women's clothing was produced in the days before financial services became New York's leading industry.
"The real action . . . was on the side streets, populated by the myriad businesses needed to produce a garment, making everything from fabric to pins and needles," wrote Jean Appleton — daughter of David Dubinsky, who led the International Ladies Garment Workers Union from 1932 to 1966 — in an August New York Times op ed.
In the buildings that lined those streets, she wrote, "machines and people worked day and night filling the orders left by buyers from across the country. I remember pushing my way through the hundreds of master cutters and patternmakers who crowded the sidewalk along 38th Street at lunchtime, dodging the hand trucks carrying stylish garments. . . . Every one recognized the garment district not just as a geographic designation, but also as a living entity. . . . When John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, he made sure to stop by the garment district, where he addressed tens of thousands of union workers along 38th Street, with stars like Tallulah Bankhead and Janet Leigh beside him on the podium."
Now, all that is gone, and some local business promoters think it's time to move on. "We should remember the rich history of this neighborhood, but we must look forward as well, and work to ensure that our future is as vibrant as our past," wrote Barbara Blair Randall, president of the Fashion Center Business Improvement District, in a letter about Appleton's op ed. "That is why we have begun seeking proposals for a campaign to market the district to prospective tenants, who will play a major role in its continuing growth."
Whatever you may think of the modern American labor movement, the fact remains that without unions, people in low-paid manufacturing jobs have no way to push for better conditions, no way to stand up for their basic human dignity. And employers know it.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!