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."