So I am lonely and ill at ease when the rest of the country—it seems—is marching with flags, enjoying martial music and “patriotic” speeches glorifying the wrong uses of our excessive power, or going, more humbly, to the graveyards like the military cemetery here in Santa Fe, ever growing, with its endless rows of plain white markers and little fluttering U.S. flags. I was sorry to have to explain to a grandchild that not all these men were killed in battle.
Searching for a different kind of remembrance, I thought of the largely unheralded and forgotten women who died in the factory fires that continue to plague the world. Every time we buy something made in the third world, with its ever-expanding borders, we are endorsing the kind of ill-paid, unhealthy labor, largely performed by poor women, that may result in their death in factory fires.
For example, the Shirtwaist Fire.
On March 25, 1911, fire broke out on the upper floors of the Asch Building in lower Manhattan. Exit doors had been locked to prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks from their sewing machines, where they made the shirtwaists that were the uniform of respectability for women in that period.
As the flames raced through the three top floors, young women (the youngest was fourteen) and a few men crowded to the windows. Fire engine ladders were too short to reach them; rather than burn to death, some jumped from the windows to die on the sidewalk. Several girls jumped hand in hand.
146 people died, nearly all young Jewish and Irish immigrant girls for whom this job was the best the New World offered.
A small plaque on the building commemorates their deaths, which spurred the creation of labor laws and the National Ladies Garment Union.
It was not the only fire. At the same period, trapped workers in Vermont mills were turned to ash when their buildings caught fire.
Again, they were mostly young immigrant girls.
Now, the fires occur in places like Bangladesh where owners lock doors to prevent their workers from talking breaks.
And we buy what they produce.
I decided a year and a half ago only to buy what is made in the United States, fully understanding that with the destruction of our labor unions, there are probably many factories here that rival the horrors of the ones in Bangladesh. Owners across the spectrum place profits above human lives.
At first I was met with blanks stares when I asked at stores here in Santa Fe whether they carried anything made in the U.S. At REI, the big box store chain that has driven out our local outdoor suppliers, the young sales woman finally led me to a row of hiking socks, made in Vermont. Needless to say, they were more expensive than the socks made in China, but I could afford to buy a pair, and I did.
Now, when I ask the question, it’s clear that it has been asked before. The excellent small privately owned furniture store here, Design Warehouse, stocks sofas made in North Carolina, where so much furniture used to be made before it was nearly all outsourced. Bodhi Bazaar, my favorite clothes store, whose hardworking owner, Rose Mary, often makes my day with her smile, carries two lies of expensive clothes made in this country. Nearby, Peruvian Connection, a small chain of stores started in Kansas in 1976, carries clothes made in Peru in workshops supervised by the owner, which makes them possible for me. All of these shops can be viewed on line.
So why have I never met anyone who shops as I do?
The issue is not money; for a few years, wealthy women enjoyed boasting about shopping at “Targé.” It made the place sound French. (I don’t hear that anymore.) Of course everyone loves a bargain, but a bargain at what hidden price?
As a way to celebrate next Memorial Day when many of you will not be marching in parades or visiting graveyards, why not spend an hour asking at your favorite store whether they carry anything made in the U.S.A.?
You don’t have to buy. Just ask.
Remember when there was a little flag-embroidered label in almost every pair of jeans, proclaiming “Made in the U.S.A”?
For more on the Bangladesh fire, please read my post, “The High Cost of High Fashion,” which includes a powerful documentary trailer from The New York Times.