Worker safety, then and now

March 27, 2014 

Police and passersby stood near bodies of those who jumped rather than burn in the Triangle Waist Factory Fire in Manhattan 103 years ago.

On March 25, 1911, 146 immigrant workers, mostly female and at least one as young as 12, were near the end of their workday in a sweatshop in Lower Manhattan, locked into an overcrowded workspace.

When fire broke out on the upper floors of the Triangle Waist Factory, they either perished in the building or jumped to their deaths. It was, poet Chris Llewellyn wrote, "the day it rained children."

One of the worst workplace disasters since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, it gave rise to reforms and breathed life into efforts to unionize sweatshop workers.

But justice was not always served. Factory owners were acquitted of criminal liability. Eventually they settled 23 civil lawsuits by agreeing to pay $75 per fatality. Two years later, one of the partners was again in court for locking workers in. He was fined $20.

Much has changed and much has not. Sweatshops still exist throughout the world, including in the United States. Immigrants, legal and not, are still exploited, working long hours for pitiful wages, often in substandard and unsafe conditions.

At this distance, those who died in the Triangle fire are rightly seen as victims of capitalism run amok. As current debates rage, we would do well to consider how our protection of today's disadvantaged workers will be viewed a century hence.

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