Wednesday was May 1st, “May Day”—the original Labor Day, then “International Worker’s Day.” It’s really the left’s only global holiday. Pictures show people around the world, taking to the streets and protesting. They are demanding higher wages, better benefits and safer working conditions. Something, many of us in this country, take for granted, and the great irony of May 1st is that it is recognized all around the world, but its birthplace is here at home.
May Day started in Chicago. In 1886, workers peacefully came together, striking for an eight-hour work day. That rally turned deadly after a bomb was thrown at police—protesters and police alike lost their lives. You learn about the Haymarket Affair in school, but the story, essentially, has been lost to history. We forget about all the labor tragedies and triumphs along the way.
On a day like May Day, we think about the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which killed 146 garment workers in New York City. We think about all the moments in American history when people have struggled for basic autonomy—dignity, solidarity, and protection for themselves in the places where they work. Sometimes we think that all that stuff that happened in the 19th and 20th centuries: labor mobilization, fighting for better conditions—that’s is just some story. A fairytale from the past. But this battle is not in the past. It is very much in the present.
Now take a look at Bangladesh—a country of 150 million people. And last week, the country suffered the single most lethal incident in the history of the garment industry.
Rana Plaza was an eight-story building made out of concrete and glass, located in the outskirts of the capital city of Dhaka. It was built on a swamp, without the proper permits. And according to the country’s chief engineer, three of its stories were added illegally. Rana Plaza housed a number of businesses—including at least five garment factories that supplied Western clothing retailers. Last Wednesday, it collapsed. Over four hundred people have died, and that number is sure to rise, as the search for survivors has now turned into a mission to recover the dead. When I first read about this tragedy, I thought to myself: this is horrific. But I also thought that this was one of those stories you read about, you feel awful, and you keep going about your day.
It’s tempting to think that this is just the way the world is. That this kind of tragedy happens in that kind of country. The people of Bangladesh disagree. In the wake of this horrific event, there has been a society-wide mobilization. Not unlike what happened in India after a young woman was gang raped on a bus. Not unlike what happened here in this country, in the wake of Newtown, Conn., when a long-festering social problem announced itself in a way that shook the nation’s conscience. In the meantime, the horrific details surrounding Rana Plaza’s collapse keep trickling out.
The New York Times reports on what went on the day before the building collapsed:
“Workers on the third floor were stitching clothing when they were startled by a noise that sounded like an explosion. Cracks had appeared in the building.”
An engineer came to assess the building. He examined three support pillars and concluded the building needed to be closed immediately.
Workers at Rana Plaza earned as little as $40 a month. They had no union. They didn’t even have the power to say, I cannot go to work today because I don’t feel safe. That lack of power is what killed them. The man who had all the power at Rana Plaza was the building’s owner, a man named Sohel Rana.The New York Times describes him “as untouchable as a mafia don.”
Mr. Rana was reportedly involved in illegal drugs and guns. He also happened to be the local leader of the ruling political party’s youth wing. When it became clear he was responsible for the conditions at Rana Plaza, Mr. Rana tried to sneak out of the country. He was nabbed by the police, and is now going to be brought to trial. If these details outrage you, you are not alone.
Today, thousands of Bangladeshis took to the streets in the capital city of Dhaka demanding better safety standards for their neighbors, their brothers, their sisters, for themselves. Because Bangladesh right now as a society is saying what other societies has said at other moments: Enough. This cannot stand. It is a stark reminder on this day, when we think about what it means for working people to band together and assert their power, it literally is a matter of life and death,.
All of us have some type of understanding that the clothes we wear on our backs were made somewhere. They might have been made in one of the factories inside Rana Plaza. The future we should be heading towards isn’t a future in which our clothes aren’t made by people in Bangladesh—or other parts of the globe. The future is a future in which our clothes are made by people in Bangladesh—but those people have the right to form a union. They have the right to earn a living in an environment with the proper building permits. They have the right to go to work every day, earn a fair, livable wage, and come home every night—safe, to the people they love. It’s the most basic demand, but it doesn’t just happen by magic. It happens through struggle.
Happy May Day.