As we proudly celebrated the victories of workers all over the world this past May Day, we also must share in the grief over the horrific deaths of the garment workers in Bangladesh. Their deaths are murder.
The accurate comparison will be made by many to the 1911 death of 146 garment workers in New York City. And again, we must draw on our legacy and heroes of the past to help us in the present.
As Joe Hill said, “Don’t mourn, organize.”
But how should we organize? There have been calls for consumer boycotts, and the public has put pressure on American and Canadian international corporations such as Joe Fresh, owned by Loblaws, to monitor their sourcing.
Many say that fair trade and cooperatives will create the justice needed for international workers and farmers. But even here, the small but mighty fight of workers dismissed from Just Us! Coffee Roasters Co-op for attempting to form a union tells us that cooperatives and fair trade do not ensure respect for worker’s rights.
The most vigorous defense of workers against the greed of their bosses has always been union organizing, as the women of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union learned and taught us in the days of early capitalism in the United States and England.
Yet even union organizing and the struggle for reform of the worst excesses of capitalism do not end the relentless striving for profit as capitalism advances across the world. As we support every effort to defend and protect against horror and death (as in the case of the workers of Bangladesh in the Rana Plaza factory complex), and the much smaller but no less important struggle for basic legal rights to union organizing (as at Just Us! In Nova Scotia), we need to pause and reflect on the task ahead: to organize against capitalism itself.
We need to organize to seek a better world, to find the methods and ideas that will guide us in understanding the economic forces that seek to divide us workers as “producers” and “consumers.” We must answer honest questions about the failures of past socialist organizing and the lessons we can learn as we establish our tasks in moving forward for profound and fundamental change.
This is what the memory of our brothers and sisters working at the Shirtwaist Factory, in the hills of coffee production in Mexico, in the huge garment industry in South Asia, in the new service industries of North America, and everywhere that we labour demand of us, the living, with all the energy and hope and intellect and passion we can mobilize.
I suggest we edit our brother Joe Hill’s admonition. We must learn from the history of capitalism and of socialist movements in order to move forward together against capitalist exploitation. We must both mourn and organize.