In September 1909, Clara Lemlich, a young woman from Ukraine, stood up in front of a crowded auditorium in New York City’s Cooper Union. After listening to lengthy speeches by union leaders who urged caution, Lemlich said that the poor pay and unsafe working conditions could go on no longer, and she called for a strike. Her words inspired the Uprising of the 20,000, a walkout that halted work in many of New York City’s garment factories.
Her daughter is just as plucky.
On March 25, at the centennial commemoration for the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, held near Washington Square, Rita Margules, decked out in a red sweater with zebra print, sat at the podium, facing a crowd of thousands. She had a bone to pick with her seating partner: Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
“I was excited to meet him,” she told the Forward. “But he was late.”
She told the mayor this much. The ceremony began at noon, but hizzoner rolled in at around 12:30, missing most of the speeches before his.
For her part, Margules said she wasn’t that well versed in her mother’s impact or legacy until the feminists of the 1960s began pointing to Lemlich for inspiration. Since then, Margules has been primarily concerned with social justice causes.
“I have a responsibility all the time,” she said. “If I’m going to follow in my mother’s footsteps, I’m going to keep fighting for justice, always.”
That, and punctuality. “What happened? Were you stuck in traffic?” Margules asked the mayor.
“It’s cold,” Margules said that Bloomberg told her. Then he told her he was coming down with a cold, so he stayed in his car until the last possible moment.
“Well, why didn’t you wear a hat?” Margules asked Bloomberg.
Bloomberg got up to present his speech, following words from union leader Bruce Raynor, U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and New York Senator Charles Schumer.
“That tragic fire shocked our city and stirred its conscience,” Bloomberg told the crowd. “That work has never really ended…. Today we face new challenges in keeping workplaces safe.” He mentioned the 25 new workplace laws that New York adapted since 2008.
Throughout his speech, the union-heavy crowd booed audibly — especially when he mentioned immigration reform. The notoriously short-fused mayor then sat down next to Margules again. “You can’t please everyone,” he told her. He added that he assumed people didn’t hear all of what he had said.
She found his blasé attitude refreshing. “It was one of the first times I remember that he didn’t get upset about it,” she said.
After the ceremony, Margules took her daughter and grandson to a lunch for descendants of Triangle fire victims. Later that evening, they planned to attend a re-enactment of that fateful Cooper Union meeting.
Contact Joy Resmovits at firstname.lastname@example.org