All of us have been affected by the tragic news reports concerning the hundreds of garment workers crushed to death after the collapse of an unsafe building in Bangladesh. The callousness with which these workers’ concerns about the structural integrity of the building were ignored, and the spotlight it has placed on sweatshop conditions in the industry has resulted in demonstrations and demands for reform.


Coupled with these news reports from Bangladesh, I have been perusing accounts and film footage filtering in on the Web of rioting, vandalism, and skirmishes between May Day “anarchists” and police in Seattle, Washington.

All of this got me to thinking yesterday on the history of the clothing workers and of the significance and meaning of the May Day “holiday.” It is easy—far too easy—for those of us living in the United States and buying clothing to ignore the plight of the workers involved in making those items when they are—for the most part–living a world away in what we refer to as the “Third World.” I am reminded of the lyrics of “One World (Not Three)”—a 1981 song by the Police in which Sting reminds us that “one world is enough for all of us,” and that “by pretending they’re a different world from me, I show my responsibility.”

It was not so very long ago that “sweatshop” working conditions in the garment industry in our own country were not so very different than those in Bangladesh, resulting in deadly industrial disasters like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City. On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out in the building where a large number of Jewish and Italian immigrant women were working. The managers of that company had locked the stairwell doors and exists—a common practice to prevent women workers from taking unauthorized breaks—and as a result, 146 garment workers between the ages of fourteen and forty-three perished from fire, smoke inhalation, or from jumping from the eighth, ninth, and tenth floor windows of the building.

In the aftermath of that tragedy, some turned to music to memorialize the tragedy while others pushed for the passage of labor and workplace safety standards legislation to prevent similar events.


The horrific event also prompted the rise of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) dedicated to fighting for better working conditions.


The ILGWU found a champion in Dale Zysman, Vice President of the Teachers’ Union and a militant Communist who habitually struck Stalinesque poses with his own pipe! In 1935 he published an account of the unionization of the garment industry attacking the Socialist and American Federation of Labor (AFL) trade unions as “reactionaries” and lauding Communist organizers as “heroes.”



Of course, in spite of the gains made by some unions, sweatshop conditions did not disappear overnight. Some progress was made during the Great Depression under the auspices of the Roosevelt Administration. The passage of the Wagner Act (The National Labor Relations Act of 1935) did wonders for clothing workers across the nation, as is attested to by the “Write-a-letter-for-Roosevelt” contest sponsored by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America in 1940.




Even on through the war years, unions continued to fight for better wages and working conditions for those persons employed in the clothing and textile industries.


One such pamphlet produced by the Textile Workers Union of America sought to remind the public that nearly half a million “forgotten” cotton textile workers were still enduring poor working conditions, were still inadequately paid, and still living in substandard housing.



Turning from the garment industry tragedy in Bangladesh to the May Day disturbances in Seattle, Washington, I was also drawn back to the Wolfsonian library collection and connections to the events in another American city, Chicago, which shaped the internationally recognized day of labor and the working class.



In 1886, the AFL, the Knights of Labor, the Socialist Labor Party, and the Central Labor Union of Chicago, and other militant leftist organizations united behind the Eight Hour Association campaign for: “Eight hours of work, eight hours of sleep, and eight hours of recreation.”  The various labor organizations decided to flex their collective muscle by calling all workers to pick a single day in which they would all stand shoulder to shoulder in a mass demonstration of worker solidarity.


More than 20,000 workers attended the pre-May Day mobilization, and on May 1st the city of Chicago work stopped as the working class lay down their tools of their various trades and joined peaceful demonstrations in the streets. Two days later, however, violence erupted at a mass meeting at the aptly named McCormick Reaper Works when the police attacked and killed six of the striking workers. On May 3rd, outraged citizens again took to the streets, assembling in Haymarket Square to demonstrate against the previous day’s police violence.



During that demonstration, a makeshift bomb was thrown and the police responded by firing into the crowd, killing and wounding several other policemen and demonstrators.


Although the assailant was never identified, several organizing labor leaders were tried as instigators of the riot. Although none of them were guilty of throwing the bomb, four of the “radicals” were convicted of conspiracy and inciting riot and were condemned to death: Adolph Fischer (1858–1887), George Engel (1836-1887), Albert Richard Parsons (1848-1887), and August Vincent Theodore Spies (1855–1887).


It is probably worth providing an excerpt from a speech made by Spies while on trial for his life for inciting the Haymarket Square riot as it seems as sadly relevant to today’s headlines.

“Anarchism is on trial! If that is the case your honor, very well; you may sentence me, for I am an anarchist. I believe that the state of castes and classes–the state where one class dominates over and lives upon the labor of another class, and calls this order–yes, I believe that this barbaric form of social organization, with its legalized plunder and murder, is doomed to die and make room for a free society, voluntary association, or universal brotherhood, if you like. You may pronounce the sentence upon me, honorable judge, but let the world know that in A.D. 1886, in the state of Illinois, eight men were sentenced to death because they believed in a better future; because they had not lost their faith in the ultimate victory of liberty and justice!…

You gentlemen, are the revolutionists! You rebel against the effects of social conditions which have tossed you, by the fair hands of fortune, into a magnificent paradise. Without inquiring, you imagine that no one else has a right in that place. You insist that you are the chosen ones, the sole proprietors. The forces that tossed you into the paradise, the industrial forces, are still at work. They are growing more active and intense from day to day. Their tendency is to elevate all mankind to the same level, to have all humanity share in the paradise you now monopolize. You in your blindness, think you can stop the tidal wave of civilization and human emancipation by placing a few policemen, a few Gattling guns and some regiments of militia on the shore; you think you can frighten the rising waves back into the unfathomable depths whence they have arisen by erecting a few gallows in the perspective. You oppose the natural course of things, you are the real revolutionists. You alone are the conspirators and destructionists!…

Look upon the economic battlefields! Behold the carnage and plunder of the Christian patricians! Accompany me to the quarters of the wealth creators in this city. Go with me to the half starved miners of the Hocking Valley. Look at the pariahs ( out casts ) in the Mongahela Valley, and many other mining districts in this country, or pass along the railroads of that great and most orderly and law abiding citizen Jay Gould. And tell me whether this order has in it any moral principle for which it should be preserved. I say that preservation of such an order is criminal–is murderous. It means the preservation of the systematic destruction of children and women in factories. It means the preservation of enforced idleness of large armies of men, and their degradation. It means the preservation of intemperance, and sexual as well as intellectual prostitution. It means the preservation of misery, want, and servility on the one hand, and the dangerous accumulation of spoils, idleness, voluptuousness, and tyranny on the other. It means the preservation of vice in every form. And last but not least, it means the preservation of the class struggle, of strikes, riots, and bloodshed. That is your “order” gentlemen. Yes, and it is worthy of you to be the champions of such an order. You are eminently fitted for that role. You have my compliments!”


~ by "The Chief" on May 2, 2013.


  1. Awesome post Frank!!

  2. This tragedies make me remember the movie, Christ in Concrete.
    It looks that happened yesterday but…today is happening still.
    This blog renew or memory with strong evidences. Thanks!!!

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