Workers Are Us

Editors’ Note: See also Three Centuries of Indecision in today’s issue.

As VoxFairfax celebrates its second anniversary this week, the editors are mindful of another commemorative event over a century ago.

A short 109 years ago, on March 25, 1911, 146 young people, mostly women, perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Many of the deaths resulted as the trapped workers leapt from the upper floors of the textile manufacturing building while its interior was being consumed by fire and exit doors were locked.

The horrific tragedy spurred the state to adopt workers’ compensation laws along with those regulating child labor and workplace safety conditions. Consider that today, the doors to workplaces and other facilities where numbers may gather open outwards. This national phenomenon is due to the Triangle fire.

Every state jurisdiction has similar statutory schemes to protect workers, along with provisions of the federal government (the Office of Safety and Health Administration, OSHA). States with highly unionized or dense manufacturing areas tend to have more stringent laws, rules, and regulations, as well as enforcement.  Occupations with high risk or incident of accidents or injury are often required to conduct safety programs as a collaboration between organized labor and employers.  The Triangle fire occurred at a high point of the nation’s experience with the Industrial Revolution, when waves of newly arrived immigrants populated growing industrial expansion. At the same time, the awful tragedy spurred the concern of the larger society for the entirety of its members, their safety, and well-being.

Frances Perkins, a sociologist, teacher, and labor leader, was a witness to the 1911 event and led the popular effort to develop New York State’s creation of legislation to protect workers. In that role, she became acquainted with Franklin D. Roosevelt, then a New York state legislator. Subsequently, in 1933, FDR named Perkins the first woman Secretary of Labor, and the first woman to hold a Cabinet position.

Sadly, today, workers continue to perish in similar conflagrations, albeit in places such as Pakistan, India, and Indonesia.

Sadly, today, workers continue to perish in similar conflagrations, albeit in places such as Pakistan, India, and Indonesia. These occur in large part due to the offshore placement or displacement of American manufacturing and despite pledges by American importers stating that the foreign factories are subject to only voluntary international safety standards. The clear truth is that the failure is merely about money, i.e., cheaper labor and increased profit. This paradigm is not dissimilar to the one that consumed the 146, mostly immigrant, workers at the Triangle factory.

In one companion post in this issue, we note the failure of Virginia to recognize the immutable evidence from medical science in the recognition of work-related injuries, published over 300 years ago by an Italian epidemiologist. In another, attention is called in regard to lessons to be learned by the current pandemic and its potential implications. The author seems to engage in prescient thought about the Triangle fire and the coronavirus:

But there’s an even deeper tragedy at play, beyond the meagerness of the new benefits. The true embarrassment is that it took a pandemic for leaders to realize that the health of the American work force is important to the strength of the nation. The coronavirus might teach us all to value a robust safety net — but there’s a good chance we’ll forget the lesson, because this is America, and forgetting working people is just what we do.

The number of deaths due to the Triangle fire already pales in comparison to those that have succumbed to the coronavirus. Will it make any difference to our capacity to sustain the societal response to the pandemic? The sense of a common threat that forces every neighbor to be aware of every other neighbor and stranger?

If all that remains after the current threat of the coronavirus wanes is a more secure safety net, then we will have accomplished something. Ignoring medical evidence and the lessons of tragedies, as Virginia seems to do (as in the Virginia Tech mass shooting), it is not only working people who are forgotten, it is all the people.

Categories: Issues, labor and unions, Local, National

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