Tragedy in Bangladesh
A few years ago I brought a friend to see a performance of music and photos dedicated to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire at the Boston Jewish Music Festival. I had done my research beforehand, and knew of the horrible fire and unsafe working conditions that claimed the lives of 146 young workers- many of which were young Jewish and Italian immigrant women. My friend, however, followed me blindly to the performance. I watched his face fall as he discovered the show was not a whimsical orchestra of musicians all playing the triangle, but a heartbreaking and poignant look at how child labor and sweatshops endangered many young women in our country.
Although the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire took place in 1911, sweatshops and unsafe conditions are not a thing of the past. Just yesterday over 600 workers were injured and 70 were killed in the collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh. According to reports, cracks appeared in the walls earlier this week and labors were ordered to toil on in unsafe conditions. Tragically this collapse comes only a few months after a fire killed over 100 workers in another garment factory in Bangladesh.
There is a long tradition of Jewish involvement on both sides of the labor struggle—especially in the American garment industry. While Jewish union workers and organizers like Rose Schneiderman and Clara Lemlich fought at the front of the battle for safer labor practices, other Jews like Isaac Harris and Max Blank, owners of the Triangle Factory, exploited laborers and caused much suffering.
Current labor-related disasters such as the factory collapse in Bangladesh give us the opportunity to reflect on our place in this ongoing struggle, as humans and as Jews. In contemporary labor issues, Jews often fill the roles of consumers, allies, owners, and indeed exploiters, rather than as laborers themselves. Our newest education project, Living the Legacy, chronicles the complex and dynamic relationship between Jews, Jewish tradition, and the Labor Movement. The sources and background essays within it were developed specifically to encourage readers and participants to examine this issue more closely.
Lesson one, Bread and Roses, defines basic needs and explores ideas about work, dignity, need, and responsibility through music, memoir, photographs, and traditional Jewish texts. Lesson two, From Suffering to Action, From the Individual to the Collective, investigates the motivations of immigrant women that led to the strike known as the “Uprising of the 20,000” in 1909-1910, and the ensuing tragedy of the Triangle fire that led to lasting labor reform. Lesson four, Workers and Their Allies, Then and Now, explores the myriad ways Jews have organized to support workers and their families and outlines the changing role of the Jewish community in providing aid and support for laborers. Finally, lesson 8, Contemporary Jewish Labor Campaigns: The Labor Movement Begins at Home, explores contemporary Jewish labor campaigns on issues such as the living wage and the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights and analyzes how and why Jewish organizations are advocating in solidarity with oppressed workers.
Tragedies like what happened in Bangladesh are without a silver lining. However, these stories remind us that we—as laborers, consumers, allies, and Jews—have a traditional and historical legacy to uphold in the struggle for the rights and safety of the workers on whom we rely.