When word got out that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker had ordered the windows of the state Capitol building bolted shut during the protests against his attacks on public employees, it was a chilling reminder of how employers of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company had locked their factory doors, preventing the young, mostly immigrant women from escaping the deadly fire that killed 146. Employer groups like the Manufacturers’ Association had fought legislative efforts to install sprinklers in buildings, and garment manufacturing owners had resisted attempts by workers to form unions and gain bargaining rights so they could address job safety issues and improve wages and hours.
As we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire on March 25, it’s sobering to realize many of the lessons we thought had been absorbed must be learned again—and again. The Triangle fire, a symbol of unfettered Gilded Age greed, still stands burning before us. From the lack of job safety and health protections to the treatment of immigrant workers to the attacks on the right to form a union and bargain for a better life—the issues raised by the Triangle fire still have not been resolved.
America’s Immigrant Workers
When most of us think about how the immigrant workers were treated at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory, we are convinced such conditions no longer exist in this country. Not so, says Ai-jen Poo, founder of Domestic Workers United based in New York. Poo has helped lead a movement of some the nation’s most invisible workers, those not covered by standard US labor laws and hidden from view in countless homes. Last year, through the efforts of Domestic Workers United, the New York State Legislature enacted a precedent-setting law covering the wages, severance pay and sick days of the state’s estimated 200,000 nannies and housekeepers. The New York campaign for the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights is a model for domestic workers nationwide who, despite the odds, are joining together and demanding their basic human rights on the job.
Today, some of the industries that employ immigrant workers are unregulated and have fallen outside the protection of existing labor laws, including the right to organize, says Poo. "But while these industries were once considered marginal, they are increasingly defining the entire direction of the economy where workers, whether immigrant or not, are experiencing dangerous working conditions, long working hours and low wages."
This “shadow” economy, with its long hours, low wages and dangerous conditions in which people are overworked and yet still poor, is “more the norm,” says Poo—and worse: "It’s a good window into the economic health of this country which is not very healthy. Just as at the turn of the century you could look at the manufacturing industry and see the economy wasn’t healthy."
But after Triangle and after countless more outrages, known and unknown, at the workplace, workers took their futures in their hands and reshaped the economy.
"We’re now in a very similar moment," says Poo. "We’re standing at the precipice of a major crisis for working people in their country, another moment where we have to stand up as immigrant workers and all workers to take back our rights and dignity in the workplace and in the economy as a whole."
Job Safety and Health
Last April, 99 years after the Triangle disaster, 29 miners were killed at West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch mine in an explosion that the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) says could have been prevented if the mine had been in compliance with federal mine safety rules. Massey Energy, the mine’s owner, had a significant history of safety violations.
The coal industry isn’t the only one in which US workers die at work. In 2008, 5,214 workers were killed on the job, another 50,000 workers died from occupational diseases, and at least 4.6 million workers were reported injured. The disasters last year that killed those miners could have been avoided had lawmakers resisted lobbying by mine owners, says Peter Dreier, who teaches politics and chairs the Urban and Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. Dreier says that today, the leading foe of reform "is the United States Chamber of Commerce, which is on a crusade against the Obama administration’s plans to set new rules on unsafe workplaces, industrial hazards and threats to public health." According to Dreier, "the Chamber’s most vocal proponent is Darrell Issa, the conservative California Republican who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. At the request of the Chamber and other industry lobbies, Issa recently launched a congressional assault on safeguards in workplaces and communities."
The American Petroleum Institute, the National Association of Manufacturers, the Association of American Railroads, the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association and lobbies representing health care, banking and telecommunication providers are lobbying to scale back the gamut of job safety and health laws that protect millions of workers. And Republicans are doing their bidding. In a piece on Triangle, Dreier and Donald Cohen, director of the Cry Wolf Project that counters attempts to discredit progressive policies, write that Republicans in Congress are "proposing to cut OSHA’s budget by 20 percent, which, coming on top of decades of cuts, would cripple an agency that has been effective at significantly reducing workplace injuries and deaths."
A century after the Triangle fire, “we still hear much of the same rhetoric whenever reformers seek to use government” to get businesses act more responsibly and protect consumers, workers and the environment.
The Republican leadership is trying to drive home the message that, as Speaker John Boehner put it, “excessive regulation costs jobs” and the “path to prosperity” is by “getting government out of the way.” Americans of earlier generations—who enjoyed the benefits of the Progressive Era and the New Deal reforms, and the political clout of a vibrant labor movement—understood this was nonsense, but it seems like the lessons of the past have to be relearned again.
Freedom to Form Unions
When newly-elected Republican Governor Scott Walker proposed taking collective bargaining rights away from Wisconsin public employees early this year, Chad Goldberg joined tens of thousands—sometimes hundreds of thousands—of state residents to protest the move. He and others spent the night at the Capitol to ensure the governor didn’t shut them out, in addition to taking part in rallies during the state’s bitter winter. The Wisconsin uprising has lasted for more than five weeks, sparking solidarity rallies across the country and generating support from as far away as Egypt and Australia. Goldberg, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, notes the bitter irony that on the 100th anniversary of the Triangle fire, "Walker is turning the clock back in Wisconsin, refusing to work with unions or allow public employees to bargain over working conditions."
"The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire showed what can happen when employers refuse to work with unions,” says Goldberg, vice president of United Faculty & Academic Staff (UFAS), AFT Local 223. "If the factory owners had negotiated with the garment workers’ union, which demanded a decent fire escape and better safety conditions, 146 lives would have been saved."
The Republican-controlled legislature approved Walker’s proposal to gut collective bargaining, saying the action would help the state’s budget. But Goldberg and others know the move was political—taking away the freedom of workers to bargain has nothing to do with balancing the budget. In state after state, similar attacks on the rights of workers to bargain for good middle class jobs are aimed at gutting the strength of workers and stacking the deck in favor of CEOs and Wall Street. Collective bargaining rights are a matter of basic fairness, says Goldberg. Collective bargaining “strengthens shared governance, needed checks and balances and accountability and improves working conditions.” Goldberg adds, "Our working conditions are students’ learning conditions and when you improve one, you improve the other."
The Triangle fire “also showed how arrogance and oppression can galvanize the public to demand better treatment for workers,” he says.
“The governor’s arrogance, the arrogance of the public legislators, the way they’re overreaching and the extremist nature of their agenda is really fueling a public reaction in defense of workers’ rights and public services. The Triangle fire led to the growth of the garment workers’ union and the strengthening of fire, health, and labor regulations. Today in Wisconsin, we’re seeing the same kind of public mobilization to defend workers’ rights and the public services on which working families depend."
Columbia University’s Remembering the Triangle Factory Fire site offers details of the events, the reforms it sparked and educational resources for teachers.
The US Department of Labor offers a mobile-optimized website to commemorate the anniversary, featuring an audio tour and background of the event. When you travel to one of the locations for the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire you can listen to an audio description of the location by clicking on the link within the page.
Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition lists a range of events commemorating the 100th anniversary.