Jobs, Justice, Freedom

By 1910, the Lower East Side of New York had more people per square mile than Calcutta.These poorly housed Jewish and Italian immigrants struggled to survive, while supplying the labor force for the city's hundreds of garment factories. Young women worked long hours for low pay in unsafe working conditions. In response, throughout the opening years of the 20th century, they demon­strated to abolish child slavery in sweatshops in alliance with middle class reformers. Follow­ing the 1909 "uprising of the 20,000," working women gained shorter hours, higher wages and recognition of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU).

But higher wages and shorter hours did not guarantee safety. On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the ninth floor of the Tri­angle Waist factory in Greenwich Village, which had not signed the 1909 agreement. The escape routes, some of which were locked, were not obvious in the smoke filled rooms. One hundred and forty-six workers (mostly young Italian and Jewish women) died, many of them jumping to avoid being burned alive. The outrage that followed led to legisla­tion protecting workers' safety and an alliance between their unions and progressive reformers.

Jobs, Justice and Freedom“Pickets,” lithograph by Roy DeCarava, Distinguished Professor of Art at Hunter College, CUNY, 1946.

Nearly a half century later, on May 8, 1959, Local 1199 orga­nized a strike against Mount Sinai Hospital, creating a new beginning for New York's hospital and nurs­ing home workers. Gloria Arana, a laundry worker, strike leader and native of Puerto Rico, called it "a beautiful day" when she saw Madi­son Avenue crowded with picket­ing workers. After a 46-day strike, 1199 achieved a partial victory and the union quickly grew throughout New York City's 81 voluntary hospi­tals. Another strike and changes to the state's labor laws finally brought union recognition in 1962

African-American sanitation workers struck in Memphis in Feb­ruary 1968, protesting the death of two workers and the discharge of 22 sewer workers. A month later, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Memphis to support their cause, but it was to be his last cam­paign, as he was assassinated on April 4. Eight days later, the Mem­phis workers won recognition of their union and improved wages and work conditions, but the nation had lost a leader in the fight for racial and economic justice.