In the early 1900s, NYU’s Brown Building was home to a sweatshop where a group of mostly immigrant women — many the same age as students who attend classes there today — made garments for the Triangle Waist Company. In 1909, 20,000 women of New York’s garment industry, among them the workers of the Triangle factory, went on strike, ultimately winning a 52-hour workweek, four paid holidays and union recognition. Only two years later, 146 workers died, trapped behind locked doors, in a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. The episode ignited a movement for workers’ rights and factory safety. The struggles of these and other working women in the United States inspired labor activists across the world to begin celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8. Today, women workers both in the United States and internationally continue their pursuit of justice on the job.
A few blocks away from the Brown Building stands the Straus Institute for the Advanced Study of Law and Justice, funded by over $1 million in annual donations from NYU School of Law trustee Daniel Straus, who makes his money as the owner of a nursing home empire. In September, 100 of Straus’ (mostly female) employees were confronted by paid thugs in front of the Straus Institute as they protested the unfair contract illegally forced upon them by Straus’ company, HealthBridge. The contract HealthBridge imposed eliminated half the workers’ paid sick days, their pensions and their lunch breaks. As students and workers protested together, dozens of burly men hired by Straus’ company hurled insults at them, a public reminder of the kind of disrespect the workers faced daily on the job.
Thousands of miles away, in Indonesia, workers who once sewed collegiate apparel for Adidas are fighting for their legally enshrined right to severance. Adidas owes 2,800 workers $1.8 million which the company has refused to pay, claiming they have no responsibility for the fates of their subcontracted employees.
The geography of exploitation is complex and murky. Companies like Adidas hide behind subcontracting in factories across the globe, while the Daniel Strauses of the world hide behind law schools and universities to disguise their criminal behavior. This is why over a hundred years after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, factory workers continue to be burned alive in places like Bangladesh. There is no reason why these tragedies must continue to happen. But corporations will not hold themselves accountable, which is why we must do so.
Student Labor Action Movement is celebrating International Women’s Day on Friday in honor of workers everywhere who carry on the fight for work with dignity. This is why we will ask NYU to hold its trustees accountable and to follow seven other schools in cutting its contract with Adidas. Everyone who wishes to support these struggles is welcome to join our march from Bobst Library to the Straus Institute, which begins at 12 p.m. on March 8. Although courageous women of the 20th century made incredible gains, the issues raised by the Triangle Shirtwaist fire still have their echoes on NYU’s campus, and there is much work to be done in carrying out their legacy.
A version of this article was published in the Tuesday, March 5 print edition. Caitlin MacLaren is a Gallatin junior and an organizer of the Student Labor Action Movement. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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