Opinion

The Great Debate

The power of organizing

Two separate agreements by European and American retailers around fire safety in Bangladesh mark an important step forward in protecting the lives of Bangladeshi garment factory workers. Because they were signed months after the Rana Plaza collapse, in which 1,127 workers died, it’s tempting to link the two events: a horrifying tragedy, followed by policy change.

But that thinking misses a critical fact about garment manufacturing in Bangladesh, where for decades factory workers — often without formalized power — put themselves at great risk by speaking out against abuses, building worker solidarity, and educating the public. It’s this worker-led organizing that has set the stage for real political and legislative change, and made a final massive tragedy impossible to ignore.

The clear — almost eerie — American parallel is the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, which also generated new labor laws and corporate accountability. In 1911, 146 mostly young Jewish and Italian immigrant women were asphyxiated or jumped to their deaths to escape a fire at the Triangle factory. They had been locked in the factory so that they wouldn’t steal clothes, working 60-hour weeks in sweatshop conditions.

Other fires before the Triangle disaster generated no such government response. In 1909 Clare Lemlich, a garment worker and leader of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, called for a mass strike in response to the terrible wages and working conditions of thousands of women garment workers in New York City. The “Uprising of 20,000,” as it was called, resulted in a 14-week work stoppage and an agreement from companies to increase wages and working conditions, though they did not allow workers to unionize. Triangle refused to sign the agreement. When the Triangle fire broke out two years later, it was the final straw that pushed New York State to modernize its labor laws to some of the most progressive in the country. Frances Perkins, President Roosevelt’s Labor Secretary, watched and was deeply moved by the Triangle fire; she later used the New York State laws as a model for the New Deal’s labor legislation.

Like the Triangle factory fire, the Rana Plaza building collapse was also preceded by a number of other fires and almost a decade of worker-led organizing for better wages and conditions. In 2006, garment workers filled the streets of Dhaka in the first and largest public protest since the garment market boom in the 1970s. Demanding better wages, workers protested for a month, pushing the government to finally establish a wage commission. Four years later, the minimum wage was raised to $38 a month, an 80 percent increase, but still the lowest wage for garment workers in the world.

What happened to ‘Yes we can’?

At this pivotal moment in the presidential race, President Barack Obama and his re-election team need to focus on a key question that could influence the outcome of this year’s election:

How do they get the “we” back?

Good question. We all remember how Obama broke new ground in the 2008 campaign by using social media as a powerful political tool. Obama’s campaign created an expansive Internet platform, MyBarackObama.com, that gave supporters tools to organize themselves, create communities, raise money and induce people not only to vote but to actively support the Obama campaign. What emerged was an unprecedented force, 13 million supporters connected to one another over the Internet, all driving toward one goal, the election of Obama.

When they chanted “Yes we can,” it wasn’t just a message of hope for the future – it was a confirmation statement of collective power. They weren’t waiting to be told what to do; they were actively engaged, calling friends to come to events, learn what was at stake, contribute ideas, and help out in some way. The power of “we” was awesome to behold. The “we” not only raised hope for people but also unprecedented sums of money for the old-fashioned campaign on the ground.

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