03/25/2011 01:24 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, 100 Years Later

One hundred years ago today a devastating fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City. The fire spread with shocking speed through the overcrowded and poorly ventilated building and 146 workers, mostly young women, lost their lives. A century later, this tragedy stands as a reminder that legal protections and workplace safety standards were won through a long struggle for social justice and at great human cost.

As I wrote in today's Daily News, the lessons of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire have been lost on many of my colleagues in government. Over the last decade, progress has slowed and, in many states, workers' rights have been seriously weakened. In Wisconsin, we are seeing a radical assault on employee protections, which 10 years ago would have seemed unimaginable in its scope.

And right here in New York, farmworkers and other low wage workers are struggling in conditions not much safer or fairer than the sweatshops of 1911.

There are nearly 80,000 farmworkers in every corner of New York State - they harvest apples in Western New York, onions and corn in the Hudson Valley, grapes in the Finger Lakes region and plants on Long Island.

The workers who harvest our food have been systematically denied the basic rights that are granted to all other American workers. They can be fired for trying to form a union, or for attempting to improve their working conditions. They are not eligible for overtime pay, disability or even unemployment insurance. They work seven days a week, and many have reported physical and sexual abuse.

As Attorney General, my most important responsibility is keeping New Yorkers safe by enforcing the laws that protect our people from harm. But another fundamental part of my job is to seek to advance the basic American principle of equal justice under law.

Both of these goals can be achieved by ensuring safe and fair working conditions for all New Yorkers. To truly honor the memories of those who lost their lives a hundred years ago today, we can't afford to wait another century to get it right.