Place of the Month
Columbus Park 1982 ILGWU Rally
In 1982, Columbus Park was the site of a successful rally mounted by thousands of members and supporters of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) Local 23-25 in defense of union members’ rights and benefits.
By the early 1980s, industry-wide outsourcing to offshore factories meant that Chinatown’s New York contractors were forced to accept lower prices. In 1982 many of these Chinese contractors began to refuse the terms and contracts negotiated by the manufacturers and the union, and instead demanded that workers give up holidays and other benefits. On June 24, ILGWU Local 23-25 used Columbus Park as a rallying site for a massive strike through which they demanded better contracts and fought benefit cutbacks. Close to 20,000 workers convened in the park, and after a series of speeches on the trajectory of the industry and the union, the workers marched through the streets of Chinatown. In the days that followed, the union secured pledges from contractors that they would sign the union contract. While most contractors acquiesced, several refused. On June 29, a second rally of 20,000 workers took place at Columbus Park, and by the end of the day the workers won the strike. Labor scholar Katie Quan has noted that the strike “changed the community’s understanding of the relationship between race, class and gender,” and ultimately, the union’s leaders provided greater resources to its Chinese members and became more active in the Chinese community. The strike emboldened a generation of extraordinary Chinese-American women organizers. They not only won the strike but were deeply committed to union as community, organizing a day care center that runs to this day.
March is especially significant in ILGWU history because March 25 is the anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. On Saturday, March 25, 1911, one hundred and forty-six workers lost their lives when a fire broke out on the top floors of the Triangle Waist Company in the Asch Building. With exits either blocked, inadequate, or dysfunctional, only some of the workers managed to escape; others climbed out the windows, leaping to their deaths, or perished on the factory floor. Most of the victims were young immigrant women. The ILGWU Local 25, which lost several members, organized relief for survivors and families of the victims. Although more than one hundred witnesses testified that the factory’s only viable means of egress was locked at the time of the fire, and that the factory’s owners regularly locked the building doors to inspect workers’ bags for stolen materials, the owners were acquitted. The jury was only meant to decide whether the owners were aware that the doors were locked at the time of the fire.
The tragedy and trial spurred outcry from the labor community, both locally and around the world. The ILGWU demanded an inquiry as well as legislation requiring improved factory safety standards. That year, New York State undertook the most expansive review of factory conditions in the country’s history. Their findings led to new fire safety laws and industrial standards that formed the basis for similar laws in states across the nation. Unfortunately, there is still much work to be done in this arena.