They Labor for US

Bob Eng |

When I was a teen, March 8 was International Working Women’s Day, or IWWD. IWWD carried special meaning for me because it called attention to women who worked as laborers; this included my mom.  

The history of IWWD is intertwined with a 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in lower Manhattan that killed 146 immigrant women. My mom, an immigrant woman herself, worked at a garment factory in the same part of New York City.  

To get to 2nd floor where the factory was, we had to take a slow, rickety elevator with a rusty, sliding gate that someone operated. In the factory itself, rows and rows of women sat at their sewing machines, which they powered by rocking their feet on a pedal the size of a lunch tray.  The machines were loud, but the Chinese language radio, blaring at full volume, refused to be drowned out. The air was dusty from all the loose fibers that floated about.  

The workers got paid by the piece. The more garments they finished, the more they got paid. I recall how Mom came home one day with a bloodied thumb that’d been punctured by the sewing machine’s needle. I was filled with anxiety, fearing that the next time could result in her losing a finger. Thank goodness that day never came.  

Instead, after years of dedicated service to the factory owner, she lost her job. The garment industry couldn’t remain competitive in a global marketplace and her employer decided to close down. The timing of closures and layoffs is never good for workers. This one hurt us a bit more. My mom had been paying dues to the International Ladies Garment Workers Union for decades and would’ve collected a pension. Those pension checks never came because losing her last job in the industry cut short her eligibility.

The proportion of American workers who do manual labor has shrunken. Perhaps it’s fitting that “working” has fallen off the name of International Women’s Day. Still, women who labor deserve a tribute. They labor for us.