THE BLOG
03/30/2011 10:49 am ET | Updated May 30, 2011

Sometimes It Takes a Fire to Wake Us Up

One hundred years ago last Friday, 146 workers, mostly young immigrant girls, lost their lives in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Trapped inside a sweatshop behind doors that had been locked to prevent theft and keep out union organizers, dozens of girls chose to throw themselves to their deaths nine stories below rather than be consumed by flames.

Traumatized by images of innocent bodies left strewn on city streets for days, New Yorkers rose to the occasion, initiating a wave of legal reforms and union organizing drives that laid the groundwork for the New Deal and the most exceptional gains that American workers have ever achieved.

Of course, the conditions that elicited this sweeping response did not begin on March 25, 1911. For decades, garment workers had marched, picketed, and negotiated to win legal protections and union representation that would protect them from the conditions that precipitated the Triangle Fire. New York had not been ignorant of these girls' entreaties, but it took a fire to lend the moral urgency necessary to make New York listen.

In 1911, it took a fire to wake us up. But the real fire began years before the first spark was lit, in the form of the invisible fire of oppression that kept innocent girls in working poverty and forced them to expose themselves to injury as a requirement of employment. One hundred years later, this invisible fire has not died down. If anything it has grown.

While we are not accustomed to factories bursting into flames in the heart of our city these days, New York has grown quite accustomed to the exploding retail sector that has replaced textiles and light manufacturing as the core of the city's working class economic base. This sector, and the supply chain that feeds it, is where today's invisible fires burn with the greatest intensity.

And no one company is more complicit in that fire's spread than Walmart.

With over $400 billion in annual sales, Walmart is the world's largest retailer and the nation's largest employer. If Walmart were a country, it would have the 23rd largest economy in the world. Thus, the direction in which Walmart's labor practices go to a large degree determines the quality of life of workers across the world. Sadly, the direction they've been heading in looks a lot like 1911.

In 1911, garment workers in the Triangle Factory worked themselves to the bone for 14¢ an hour. Just last year, garment workers making jeans for Walmart in the sweatshops of Bangladesh toiled away for less than 12¢ an hour. Accounting for inflation, today's Walmart sweatshop workers are making one tenth as much as their Triangle Factory predecessors.

In 1911, the world was shocked when it came to light that the owners of the Triangle Factory had locked workers inside a death trap. Yet just seven years ago, we learned that Walmart had regularly locked workers inside its stores overnight, claiming it was necessary to prevent theft, heedless of the fact that it prevented critically injured workers from obtaining badly needed medical care.

In 1911, workers in the factories that formed the backbone of America's economy were still struggling to gain the union representation that would allow them to lead middle class lives, faced at every step with intimidation and violence from company thugs. Today, workers at America's largest employer have it little better. Even the hint of a union organizing drive at a Walmart elicits a visit from a team of highly trained "union avoidance" experts from the company's Arkansas headquarters, and the only ever successful union election at a Walmart in North America triggered the store's immediate closure.

In many parts of the world, it may be 2011, but at Walmart, it's still 1911. The fire that consumed those 146 girls' lives is in this respect still burning - only now it has become a global fire that threatens millions.

Up until this point, New York City has been largely immune to its flames. But now, facing seven quarters of declining sales for the first time in its history, Walmart has set its sites on urban centers across the country as its last hope for survival. The company is reportedly in talks with the Related Companies to lease land in East New York to build its first store. They are speculated to have plans for as many as 120 more. And they have hired an army of politicos to anesthetize the population with glitzy ads and push polls to smooth the way.

The fire, in other words, is at our door. It is global in scale and deadly serious in its consequences. The question for us, as it was for New Yorkers 100 years before us, is what we will do once it has finally woken us up.