Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

The Lessons of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Are Still Relevant 107 Years Later

March 26th, 2018 | AFL-CIO Now

On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the top floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. Firefighters arrived at the scene, but their ladders weren’t tall enough to reach the impacted area. Trapped inside because the owners had locked the fire escape exit doors, workers jumped to their deaths. Thirty minutes later, the fire was over, and 146 of the 500 workers—mostly young women—were dead.

Many of us have read about the tragic Triangle fire in school textbooks. But the fire alone wasn’t what made the shirtwaist makers such a focal point for worker safety. In fact, workplace deaths weren’t uncommon at the time. It is estimated that more than 100 workers died every day on the job around 1911.

A week after the fire, Anne Morgan and Alva Belmont hosted a meeting at the Metropolitan Opera House to demand action on fire safety, and people of all backgrounds packed the hall. A few days later, more than 350,000 people participated in a funeral march for those lost at Triangle.

Three months later, responding to pressure from activists, New York’s governor signed a law creating the Factory Investigating Commission, which had unprecedented powers. The commission investigated nearly 2,000 factories in dozens of industries and, with the help of such workers’ rights advocates as Frances Perkins, enacted eight laws covering fire safety, factory inspections, and sanitation and employment rules for women and children. The following year, they pushed for 25 more laws—entirely revamping New York State’s labor protections and creating a state Department of Labor to enforce them. During the Roosevelt administration, Perkins and Robert Wagner (who chaired the commission) helped create the nation’s most sweeping worker protections through the New Deal, including the National Labor Relations Act.

The shirtwaist makers’ story inspired hundreds of activists across the state and the nation to push for fundamental reforms. And while there have been successes along the way, the problems that led to the Triangle fire are still present today. It was just five years ago, for instance, that the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh killed more than 1,100 garment workers.

As worker health and safety continues to be a significant issue both in the United States and abroad, the AFL-CIO took a strong stand at our 2017 Convention, passing a resolution on worker safety:

The right to a safe job is a fundamental worker right and a core union value. Every worker should be able to go to work and return home safely at the end of the day.

Throughout our entire history, through organizing, bargaining, education, legislation and mobilization, working people and their unions have fought for safe and healthful working conditions to protect workers from injury, illnesses and death. We have made real progress, winning strong laws and protections that have made jobs safer and saved workers’ lives.

Over the years, our fight has gotten harder as employers’ opposition to workers’ rights and protections has grown, and attacks on unions have intensified. We haven’t backed down. Most recently, after decades-long struggles, joining with allies we won groundbreaking standards to protect workers from silica, beryllium and coal dust, and stronger protections for workers to report injuries and exercise other safety and health rights.

Now all these hard-won gains are threatened. President Trump and many Republicans in Congress have launched an aggressive assault on worker protections.

The worker protections under assault include:

  • Trump’s proposed fiscal year 2019 budget cuts funding for the Department of Labor by 21%, including a 40% cut in job training for low-income adults, youth, and dislocated workers and the elimination of the Labor Department’s employment program for older workers.
  • The budget also proposes to cut the Occupational Safety and Health Administration budget, eliminate OSHA’s worker training program and cut funding for coal mine enforcement, while proposing a 22% increase for the Office of Labor-Management Standards’ oversight of unions.
  • The budget also proposes to slash the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s job safety research budget by 40%, to move NIOSH to the National Institutes of Health from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and to remove the World Trade Center Health Program from NIOSH’s direction.
  • OSHA delayed the effective date of the final beryllium standard originally issued in January 2017. Then it delayed enforcement of the standard until May 11, 2018. In June 2017, OSHA proposed to weaken the beryllium rule as it applies to the construction and maritime industries.
  • OSHA delayed enforcement of the silica standard in construction, which in December was fully upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
  • OSHA delayed the requirement for employers to electronically report summary injury and illness information to the agency set to go into effect on July 1, 2017, until December 31, 2017. OSHA has announced it intends to issue a proposal to revise or revoke some provisions of the rule.
  • OSHA withdrew its policy that gave nonunion workers the right to have a representative participate in OSHA enforcement inspections on their behalf.
  • The Mine Safety and Health Administration delayed the mine examination rule for metal and nonmetal mines from May 23, 2017, until Oct. 2, 2017, and then again until March 2, 2018. MSHA also proposed weakening changes to the rule, including delaying mine inspections until after work has begun, instead of before work commences.
  • In November 2017, MSHA announced it would revisit the 2014 Coal Dust standard to examine its effectiveness and whether it should be modified to be less burdensome on industry. This comes at the same time NIOSH reported 400 cases of advanced black lung found by three clinics in Kentucky.
  • OSHA withdrew over a dozen rules from the regulatory agenda, including standards on combustible dust, styrene, 1-bromopropane, noise in construction and an update of permissible exposure limits.
  • The agency also suspended work on critical OSHA standards on workplace violence, infectious diseases, process safety management and emergency preparedness.
  • MSHA withdrew rules on civil penalties and refuge alternatives in coal mines from the regulatory agenda and suspended work on new standards on silica and proximity detection systems for mobile mining equipment.

The Triangle Shirtwaist tragedy took place 107 years ago today. We have a long way to go to make sure that we prevent the next such tragedy and keep working people safe and healthy.

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