Century after historic fire, focus is on worker safety

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Date of publication: March 24, 2011

Source: Houston Chronicle

Author: Bjorn Claeson

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On March 25, 1911, 146 workers died in the flames of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, the largest blouse manufacturer in New York City. Locked doors trapped workers on the ninth floor, exposing them to fire and smoke. Some tried to escape on the narrow fire escape, but it collapsed. Many others jumped out of windows. All but 23 of the dead were women, most were young mothers, and some were children. All were immigrants in search of a better life. 

One hundred years later, on Dec. 14, 2010, 24 workers died in a fire in a Bangladesh factory that produces for major U.S. brands and retailers. Witnesses cited by the Associated Press reported that a locked stairwell gate trapped workers on the ninth floor. Desperate to flee the heat and smoke, workers hurled themselves out of windows and died. They too were migrants in search of a better life.

In 1911, the Triangle fire was not an anomaly. Four months earlier a similar fire in Newark killed 25 workers; virtually all garment factories were fire hazards. The same can be said for today's Bangladeshi garment industry, where chronic safety problems include locked or blocked fire escapes and malfunctioning fire equipment. According to the Bangladeshi government, 414 garment workers lost their lives in factory fires between 2006 and 2009.

The similarities are not limited to fires or Bangladesh. According to Triangle employee Esther Gotterfeld, there was a "nursery" on the 9th floor where girls as young as 10 or 11 worked. They were hidden away in scrap barrels when inspectors came. In a factory in China workers told us children as young as 14 work the same long hours as adults but "when people come to inspect, the children are told to hide."

Workers at the time, including those at Triangle, demanded safety precautions, a 52-hour work week and union recognition. In many factories workers won their demands, but the Triangle owners commissioned thugs to beat up worker leaders. They installed an in-house union, the Triangle Employees Benevolent Association, in which officers were all relatives of the owners.

Similarly, workers protesting low wages and poor safety in Bangladesh are often beaten by goons and sometimes by police and security forces. Indeed, garment workers around the world tell us of intimidation and threats, firings and beatings if they join a union. Mexico is infamous for so called "protection contracts," established by employers and in-house unions to "protect" management from independent and authentic unions.

One hundred years after the fire, our clothing is once again made in conditions similar to those in the Triangle. But this wasn't always the case.

After the fire, public outrage helped strengthen the labor movement. In New York, the number of unionized workers grew from 30,000 in 1909 to 250,000 in 1913. More than 2,000 factories in 20 industries were investigated, New York state labor law was rewritten, and a new model for fire safety, including unlocked doors, was established.

According to Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, who witnessed the Triangle fire, March 25, 1911, was "the day the New Deal began." New Deal reforms ended child labor, established a federal minimum wage and a 40-hour week, and gave workers the right to form a union that would bargain collectively with employers. Soon thereafter workers' association- and collective-bargaining rights were declared fundamental human rights and enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But today companies are able to outsource production and escape regulations. They have found labor as cheap as that in New York a century ago, and sweatshops have once again become the norm. In the United States apparel contract shops often operate "underground" and employ mostly poor immigrants of color who cannot speak out against injustices without fearing for their jobs and safety. Recent attacks against New Deal policies, including collective-bargaining rights and Social Security, threaten to unravel the Triangle fire's legacy of worker protections.

This is why the centennial of the fire, March 25, 2011, is not just a day for remembering and honoring the victims. This centennial must also be a rallying point for renewed work-based decency, safety and fairness in the U.S. and global economy.

A great place to start is organizing our cities to demand decent working conditions for workers who make the uniforms and other apparel they buy. The city of Austin already requires companies to commit to basic labor rights and human rights in return for public contracts. Ninety-five organizations in Houston, including unions, civic groups and religious organizations, say they want the city to stop using taxpayer dollars to buy sweatshop products. According to the Sweat Free Houston campaign the city spends nearly $3 million on uniforms each year.

As we mark the Triangle fire centennial today, sweat-free cities can help usher in a new era of safe and decent working conditions, For information, see http://sweatfreehouston.org/and www.sweatfree.org/trianglefire.