03/25/2011 04:42 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Marking the 100th Anniversary of the Triangle Factory Fire

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of New York City and one of the deadliest industrial accidents in the history of the United States.

This occasion has particular resonance in the present political landscape. Across this country, working men and women are under assault by the conservative agenda. We have all heard the reports from the states -- in Wisconsin, Ohio, and my home state of Michigan, the labor movement is under siege.

In the House Judiciary Committee, the Majority has introduced H.R. 10, the "Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act." The REINS Act would end federal rulemaking as we know it. House Republicans want to block even noncontroversial safety standards -- like crane and derrick construction regulations, which OSHA estimates will save 22 lives and prevent 175 injuries every year. The Majority offers this bill under the guise of "small government" and "business-friendly policy." It is as if they have learned nothing from the past.

The 146 individuals who died in the Triangle factory on March 25, 1911, represented a vibrant cross-section of the American experience. They were mostly women, mostly immigrants, some only teenagers, working hard hours in the garment district in the hopes of providing a better life for themselves and for their families.

When the fire broke out that afternoon, the stairwells were consumed by flames. The fire escape, which was never designed to support the weight of so many people and did not reach all the way to the street, collapsed. To prevent workers from stealing scraps of cloth, the owners had padlocked the back door. Fire engines reached the scene, but did not have ladders that reached the ninth floor. Many workers, faced with no escape from the blaze, leapt to their deaths on the city streets.

Tragedy soon turned to outrage. The company's owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, were longtime antagonists of the labor movement. Two years before the fire, when garment workers picketed the factory, Blanck and Harris hired thugs to beat their seamstresses into submission. They rejected the garment workers' demand for sprinklers and unlocked exits in the building. And although they were indicted for manslaughter because of their roles in the fire, Blanck and Harris were later acquitted -- in large part because there were no workplace safety standards on the books under which to hold them accountable.

That soon changed. In the aftermath of the fire, union ranks swelled and lawmakers responded. New York passed laws that required workplaces to have sprinkler systems, open doors, and functioning fire escapes. Other states followed suit. Over time, under constant pressure from the labor movement, workplace safety became an important priority for the federal government.

One hundred years later, we are still saddened at the senseless loss of life in the Triangle fire. We are still galvanized by the call for workers' rights in its aftermath. But I am also struck by those who refuse to learn the lessons this tragedy can teach us.

In 1911, when New York changed its fire code to require minimum standards for worker safety, business owners claimed that the new regulations were needless, useless, and would wipe out industry in the state.

We hear these complaints today. We hear about "government overreach" and "excessive regulation" from oil companies, even as their rigs explode, from bankers who have gambled and lost with the national economy, and, yes, from factory owners and other big businesses who do not see the percentage in worker safety standards.

We hear, all too much these days, about how unions are a drain on our economy. That sort of accusation could not be more off base. For more than a century, the American labor movement has fought for working conditions that are safe, decent, and fair. They did so for all Americans. They did so while building the country. Unions aren't a drain on our economy -- they are the backbone of our economy.

And finally, in Washington, we hear from the Republican leadership how all regulations are bad regulations, as if government had no role to play in improving the lives of working Americans.

The REINS Act is offered to prevent "government overreach" and "stifling regulations" that prevent businesses from doing as they please. The majority ignores the sizeable benefit to our economy from federal regulation -- the Office of Management and Budget estimates the federal rules add somewhere between $122 billion and $656 billion to our economy every year. It also ignores the intangible but undeniable benefits that come when Americans can enjoy clean air, clean drinking water, safe work places for our families, and safe toys for our children.

Proposals like these remind me of Blanck and Harris, the owners of the Triangle factory, who two years after the fire were caught once again locking the doors to their factory. Blanck was fined $20. It seems he learned little from the tragedy.

One hundred years after the fire, workers still deserve a safe workplace, and government still has a role in helping our working men and women secure that safety. Those who ignore that lesson threaten to roll back a century of progress.