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Working In These Times

Tuesday, Mar 29, 2011, 12:45 pm

Triangle Fire: Remembrance of Things Past—and Present

BY Richard Greenwald

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100 years later, we remember...   (Photo via Flickr)

Last week there were, as there should have been, many events in New York City and beyond remembering the Triangle Fire. After all, March 25 was the 100th anniversary of that tragedy, in which 146 mostly young female factory workers perished.

As someone who has written a book about the fire and its influence, I attended as many events as I could. I was struck by how this long-ago tragedy has somehow struck a cord for so many people. As I moved from event to event, I kept thinking that maybe, just maybe, this meant something. Maybe it (the collective remembering) would move beyond mourning to spur a renewed attention to the issues the Triangle Fire itself raised 100 years ago.

The fire was the line in the sand where many Americans said enough: we go no further. It was the moment that a strong collective working class demanded its citizenship rights. And it was the moment that many looked to the state to stand up for the weak against the strong. But as I get some distance on last week’s events, I am worried that we are loosing our moral compass, if we have not already lost it by now.

Where is our line in the sand? Will we continue to see the erosion of the rights of workers? Will an organized anti-union movement, combined with sitting governors who seem to have taken a page out of history, take what little workers have left from all the gains they made since 1911? Will we be forced to relive the past?

I hope not. But we are living in a time where organized labor is weak, fractured and leaderless. It is much like the early 1900s. Will we see a spark from the unorganized that will galvanize and renew the union movement?

If we are to see a rebirth of labor, it is surely going to come from the new immigrant communities. Will we be ready to recognize the moment and provide support for such a labor rebirth? I am waiting.

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Richard Greenwald is a labor historian and social critic. . His essays have appeared in In These Times, The Progressive, The Wall Street Journal among others. He is currently writing a book on the rise of freelancing and is co-editing a book on the future of work for The New Press, which features essays from the county's leading labor scholars and public intellectuals.

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