About 100 people gathered at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street in the Lower East Side today to commemorate the 99th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.
Union members, students, teachers, and firefighters paid tribute to the 146 young immigrant workers whose lives were taken in the infamous blaze. Relatives of the victims had symbolically printed the names of their family members on pieces of material hung on bamboo shoots. Others held giant posters with photos of their ancestors.
“This fire had a dramatic impact,” said Bruce Reynor, president of Workers United. “It was not just a tragic event, it inspired people to stand [for their rights].”
Today's gathering was also a political rally in favor of immigrants' and workers’ rights. As kids from various public schools around the city read the names of the victims of the fire and laid white carnations on the sidewalk for every one of them, 21 adults added red carnations to the flower arrangement, in memory of Bangladeshi garment workers who were killed in their clothing factory on February 25. “It’s not like you can say it’s terrible, it happened 100 years ago,” said Reynor. “It’s still happening.” He added that textile workers in New York and in the U.S were struggling for their rights, too. “Immigrants are not Jews and Italians anymore, they’re Chinese and Africans, Latin American and Caribbean,” he said. "Yet they’re fighting for the same things."
The apparel industry remains New York’s largest manufacturing sector, even though it has shrunk significantly in the past decade. In 2009, 1625 apparel manufacturing firms were registered in the state, compared to 2075 just two years earlier. “There is less garment production," said Lorelei Boylan, director of strategic enforcement in the Labor Standards Division of New York State Department of Labor. “But there are still a lot of violations out there.”
In 2008, the Apparel Industry Task Force, a group that investigates employers in the apparel industry, found that garment manufacturers owed more than $5 million in wages to their workers. And they’ve identified close to 500 businesses that were registered in 2009 and not in 2010. “The question is, are they no longer operating, or are they operating without a license?” asks Boylan. “We have to find out.”
But she says law enforcement is getting harder for her team because manufacturers are savvy at hiding proof of their wrongdoing, and workers are often afraid to speak up. In April 2008, the Task Force uncovered extensive labor violations committed by a garment contractor in Long Island City, but it took them many nights and weekends patrolling before they could prove the violations. “Employers were keeping two sets of records, and they were coaching their employees. It took us several months to show that their records were false,” Boylan says. She adds: "Enforcement is a constant challenge.”