Last week people in New York City and all over the United States marked the hundredth anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which claimed the lives of 146 garment workers, most of them women and some of them as young as 16 years old. Most of the deaths occurred because the factory owners locked the doors to the stairs and the exits because they didn’t want their workers to take breaks or leave before their 14-hour shift had ended. The ensuing outrage led to improved safety standards in factories and the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), which defended sweatshop workers and fought to improve their salaries and working conditions.
Along with negotiating for higher wages and better health and retirement benefits, unions also contribute to worker safety and offer support to workers in other areas, from housing to professional development to support in cases where workers experience harassment and discrimination. Yet unions are currently under attack throughout the United States, most visibly in Wisconsin where the governor’s efforts to break public unions has sparked weeks of huge protests and efforts to recall his allies in the state’s legislature.
When people enjoy hard-won benefits, they often forget about what life was like before those benefits existed. That is why it’s important to remember the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. It’s also important to learn about places throughout the world where those benefits do not exist, because what others suffer today may well become our future.
Cory Doctorow’s 2010 novel For the Win offers a vision of life without unions and the sacrifices people make to attain a life of security and decency in their absence. It is the account of a union organizing effort among high-tech sweatshop workers in China, India, other countries in Asia, and the United States. The story begins when Matthew Fong, a worker in China, is beaten and robbed by minions of a boss enraged because Matthew dared to quit and start his own business. The business in question is gold farming—the collection of gold coins, weapons, and power-ups in a variety of video games that can then be sold to well-heeled First World gamers. Doctorow then cuts to India, where 15-year-old Mala, a brilliant gamer known as General Robotwalla, leads a group of street children who gold farm out of an Internet café. Working late one night, Mala fights back against a sexual assault from one of the boss’s older male employees and puts the creep into the hospital. The angry boss threatens to harm her family and in this way gets her to take a significant pay cut. In Los Angeles, rebellious teenager and enthusiast for all-things-Chinese Leonard “Wei Dong” Goldberg, runs away from home to take a low-paying job in Koreatown as a game administrator for the conglomerate that runs the massive multiplayer online games and contracts with the brutal local bosses in China, India, and elsewhere. Through his online friend Matthew, Wei Dong learns of the sweatshop workers’ plight, and he eventually smuggles himself into China via a container ship to join the struggle.
Through the secret organizing efforts of longtime—and for the most part, failed—union organizer Big Sister Nor, the rebellion begins in cyberspace and eventually becomes very real when police forces of Asia’s various dictatorships come after the striking sweatshop workers. Yet the cyberwarriors have one weapon left, a hack that threatens to bring down the gaming conglomerate and the world’s financial system.
While For the Win is classified as science fiction, its setting is very contemporary, with discussion of the video game industry, speculative financial instruments, worldwide boycotts, and the economics underlying the recent global recession. In some cases, events alluded to in the story have already come to pass. For instance, following the Republican legislators’ ramming through the union-busting bill in Wisconsin, a massive withdrawal of funds by union members from the M & I Bank forced the closing of several branches. The ensuing boycott may complicate the bank’s sale to a Montreal-based corporation.
For the Win is an exciting tale of working people who struggle nonviolently against their powerful and violent masters. It reminds us that tools do exist for nonviolent social change—marches, strikes, and boycotts—and it is important for those who are exploited in the workplace to join with others rather than to suffer alone and in silence.
Those looking for additional resources, both nonfiction and historical fiction, about the Triangle fire and the history of unions in the United States will find an excellent annotated bibliography of children’s and young adult books from Rogue Librarian: http://sullywriter.wordpress.com/2011/03/29/bread-and-roses-too-books-about-the-labor-movement/.
Disclosure: I received an audiobook review copy of For the Win from Listening Library and reread the print novel at my local public library.