Turning the clock backwards on workers safety

NYHTC — April 18, 2011

The tragic events of Saturday, March 25, 1911, would have been remembered with special feeling this year, and not just in New York City, where they occurred. It was one hundred years ago this year, toward the close of the otherwise ordinary workday that particular Saturday had been, that 146 workers lost their lives within minutes.

Many leapt to certain death from the windows of the Triangle Waist Company, the garment factory they worked in. The others were burned to death or asphyxiated as flames engulfed the floors on which the factory was located. The owners kept all the doors but one locked: it made it easier for them to search each worker as they filed out at the end of the day.

Most of those who died were girls and young women, immigrants from Italy and eastern Europe. They were breadwinners for their families; most of them lived in the dreadful tenements that lined the streets of New York's Lower East Side.

Poverty and discrimination defined their lives, but these workers were fighters. They were prepared to struggle to win better lives for themselves and their families.

They knew this would not happen unless they could obtain higher wages and other basic improvements in their working conditions, and in the years immediately before the Triangle fire ended so many of their lives, they had been fighting hard to unionize their workplaces. Despite intimidation and threats, retaliatory firings, and savage beatings by hired thugs, they had persisted.

The courage they had displayed while alive, and the horrible circumstances under which they met their deaths, remain very much with us, one hundred years later. The commemorations of the Triangle fire and the annual tributes to these early victims of corporate greed continue to inspire new generations.

After years of fighting for workers rights, however, including safe and sanitary working environments, workplace tragedies continue unabated. To pick just one recent example: less than two weeks after marking the 100th anniversary of the Triangle fire, we should have commemorated the first anniversary of the April 5, 2010, explosion that took the lives of 29 miners in the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia.

Painfully little attention was paid to that grim anniversary, however, except by the family members and friends that knew and loved the fathers, husbands, sons, and brothers, whose lives were ended that day. And despite the outcry immediately after their deaths, painfully little has been accomplished to improve the dangerous conditions miners have always faced, and continue to face, every workday.

Corporations, their obscenely overpaid executives, and their armies of lawyers and lobbyists work to insure that laws to protect workers are either not enacted at all or are watered down before being enacted. Millions of dollars in corporate contributions find their way to politicians' campaign committees every year. In addition, all across the country, on the federal, state, and municipal levels, Republican politicians and the monied interests they serve are targeting ordinary workers, particularly those fortunate enough to be union members, urging cutbacks in their wages, health and pension benefits, and the enforcement of workplace safety measures.

Writing about the Triangle fire in the Washington Post, U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis called attention to the very real dangers presented by these anti-worker measures and pointed out that unions play a vital role in making workplaces safer. Workers represented by the New York Hotel Trades Council know this to be so: the 16 detailed sections and subsections on "Safety and Health" in the Industry-Wide Agreement enumerate the extensive protections that surround HTC members in their workplaces.

A truly meaningful way to mark the anniversaries of the Triangle fire and the Upper Big Branch mine explosion would be to pause to read the enumerated workplace protections your union contract provides. They begin with the following powerful provision:

The Employer and Union agree that the safety and health of employees is of paramount concern. Accordingly, the Employer agrees to provide a safe and healthy work environment. The Employer further agrees to provide such training and equipment, adopt procedures and safeguards, and make repairs or modifications to its facility as required by law or this Article in order to provide a safe and healthy work environment.

Readers who would like to learn more about the Triangle fire and the struggle for safer workplaces will find the following interesting and valuable sources:

Von Drehle, David. Triangle/The Fire that Changed America. New York: Grove Press, 2003.

Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Rembering the Triangle Factory Fire.

Downey, Kirstin. The Woman Behind the New Deal/The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR's Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience. New York: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2009.