100 Year Later, Lessons from the Triangle Fire Still Ring True

Today marks the 100th anniversary of one of the worst preventable workplace tragedies in U.S. history- the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire. On March 25, 1911, some 146 workers — mostly immigrant women and girls as young as 14 — perished  when a fire broke out in the New York City sweatshop. Because managers had locked a critical exit, many workers were trapped inside as they sought to flee the fire. Others jumped to their deaths as horrified onlookers watched.

This shameful event strengthened the garment workers union and galvanized social movements and reform. Many of the workplace standards and protections that we now take for granted rose from the ashes of that fire.

These gains didn’t happen by themselves, and must continually be renewed. Today’s workers are under attack. Corporate interests and their  political allies are trying to roll back fundamental protections, from  the right of workers to take collective action to effective enforcement of workplace standards. And in the meanwhile, too many preventable worker deaths, illnesses, and injuries continue to occur.

In California alone, over 500 workers die on the job each year — from solar industry workers who fall through skylights to custodians who perish in cardboard baling machines. Many more workers suffer serious work-related illnesses and injuries. And many of these injuries and deaths could have been prevented.

Workers need a stronger voice on the job and the undisputed right to take collective action. Cal/OSHA, the Occupational Health Branch of the California Department of Public Health, and other government agencies that help California’s workers need the tools and resources to keep them healthy and safe. Workers who are injured on the job must receive prompt health care and replacement of lost wages. And employers who fail to comply with the law — which requires them to prevent injuries — must receive appropriate penalties for their misconduct.

Only by guaranteeing workers’ rights and workplace safety can we truly honor those who died in the Triangle fire.