Preserving the Triangle Factory Fire’s Lessons, 100 Years Later

110324_golstein_lead Nancy Goldstein in The American Prospect:

Tomorrow marks the 100th anniversary of the notorious Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that trapped and killed 146 workers, most of them young immigrant women, on the upper floors of a New York City sweatshop. It's a time to honor and mourn the Triangle's victims, commemorate the tragedy's importance as a turning point in the history of the American labor movement, and reaffirm the crucial role of unions and regulatory bodies in advancing worker rights. Both are taking a beating in America's 21st-century iteration of the Gilded Age, as industrialists (hello, Koch brothers) paired with the craven politicians who do their bidding (greetings, Gov. Scott Walker, Sen. Scott Brown, et al.) take another pass at ridding our country of all those nasty laws that protect consumers and workers, and cut into their bottom line.

It was unions — led by the International Ladies' Garment Workers (now Workers United) in league with the Women's Trade Union League — that began harnessing public outrage in the wake of the fire to demand the regulations regarding worker health, well-being, and safety that protect many workers to this day, whether or not they belong to a union. Think workers' compensation, unemployment insurance, the 40-hour workweek, weekends, holidays, sick pay, employee benefits, and safety standards. While you're at it, peruse this excellent chart from the Service Employers International Union that illustrates the many ways unions succeeded in making workplace buildings safer in the wake of the Triangle tragedy. These included pressuring legislators to mandate emergency exits, sprinkler systems, and maximum-occupancy laws.