Friday, March 25, 2011

The haunting

Today, on the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 146 workers, I'd wanted to post the opening scene of the 1996 movie I'm Not Rappaport. The scene recreates the November 1909 mass meeting of shirtwaist factory workers at the Great Hall of Cooper Union where the all-male union leadership tried to clamp down the surging demand for struggle, only to be overwhelmed by it when the militant Clara Lemlich rushed the stage and, in Yiddish, called for a strike. That was the start of the Uprising of the 20,000. Unfortunately, try as I might, I can't seem to manage to get the video to post here. So if you're interested in watching the scene, follow this link.

Lemlich herself worked at many sweatshops. She'd no sooner be hired than she'd start organizing, and the bosses would fire her. That happened to her at the Triangle, which is why she was no longer working there on March 25, 1911.

Judging by the police barricades set up for blocks, a big crowd is expected for today's commemoration of the Triangle fire centenary. Indeed, from earlier this morning there've been reminders everywhere. As I emerged from the subway at Union Square this morning, I saw people gathering with some kind of shirtwaist imagery, presumably each shirtwaist to honor one of the dead, and they'll be marching in to the ceremony. The sidewalks around the area are chalked up with reminders of the anniversary, ephemeral memorials to the 146. The ceremony itself will feature music, speakers, tolling bells. All this is good. All this is right. To honor. To remember. What is not right is, among other things, the speakers' list. It includes many politicians, chief among them the richest person in New York City and current assailant against the teachers' union and all NYC workers, AKA the mayor, billionaire Michael Bloomberg. How dare he desecrate the memory of my sisters who his brothers the sweatshop bosses murdered! I don't know whether New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is speaking but I'm guessing he is too--and if possible this might be even more of an affront than Bloomberg's presence, as (the Democrat) Cuomo is currently engaged in a self-declared effort to crush the unions in this state.

And so on. Still, thousands of workers will also come, and their presence will lend heartfelt meaning to what would otherwise be a frustratingly hollow commemoration without concrete connection to the real legacy of Clara Lemlich, the shirtwaist workers, and the ghosts of the Triangle. I'll go too, on my lunch hour, to distribute fliers about the May 1 rally for worker and immigrant rights. For me, though, thinking about the Triangle fire is not unique to today. I work not 20 steps away from the building that housed that sweatshop. Every work day I walk past that corner, every work day I walk down the street that on that day 100 years ago was littered with the bodies of women who'd leapt to their deaths, every single day I think about them, and this has been the case for most of the last 30 years. You might say I'm haunted by the Triangle sisters. There's a plaque there, and frequently tourist groups stop and view it, and I often have to tamp down the impulse to harangue them with a rant about the real meaning of that event, which is not about fire laws contrary to the plaque's focus but is about the class struggle. Well I have succumbed to the urge once or twice and let loose a no doubt crazy sounding harangue. I won't today. Today I'll stand and pay my respects and pass out leaflets and listen to the bells and resist succumbing to some maudlin haunted sentimental bilge and instead look to the living struggle, from Egypt to Palestine to the Philippines to Wisconsin, the living struggle that every day avenges these sisters' deaths by capitalism.

Yesterday after work I headed downtown and got there in time to march from City Hall to Wall Street with thousands of students and union members in the "State of Emergency Protest-Day of Rage Against the Cuts." Tomorrow I'll attend an International Working Women's Month event in Harlem. My own activism is extremely limited lately, shamefully so, but when I can make it to activities I do, even if it's just to add another living body to the mass. Which also helps me shake off the haunting. For today, and every day, what the ghosts of the 146--Lizzie Adler, Becky Ostrovsky, Golda Schpunt, Isabella Tortorelli and the rest--cry out for is not ceremonies, not class collaboration. They cry out for justice, which is revolution.