THE BLOG

Why the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Is Important Today

03/25/2014 01:10 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2014

It may not seem that the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, which happened over a century ago in New York City, would be relevant today -- but it is. It was a tragedy that opened the nation's eyes to poor working conditions in garment factories and other workplaces, and set in motion a historic era of labor reforms. Unfortunately, we haven't built enough on these gains. Today, too many employers are failing to obey the labor and workplace safety laws that were enacted in the years following the tragedy. And in part because our government is not adequately enforcing these laws, workers are still needlessly losing their lives on the job. There is a lot that we can and must do to ensure that the wellbeing of workers is put above profits.

The Triangle Shirtwaist incident is remembered for its shocking brutality: On March 25, 1911, a ferocious fire broke out at a factory on the ninth floor of a building in New York City's Greenwich Village. Some of the exits and stairwells had been locked to prevent workers from taking breaks or stealing, leaving many unable to get out. As a result, 146 workers, mostly young immigrant women, died within 20 minutes. They were burned alive, asphyxiated by smoke or died trying to escape out of the windows and balcony.

The horrific event generated a nationwide outcry about working conditions and spurred efforts to improve standards. Activists and labor unions like the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) -- which lost members in the fire -- were at the forefront of this push for reforms. Honoring the memory of those who died is particularly important to me and others at Amalgamated Bank, which was founded by a garment worker's union in 1923, and is now majority-owned by Workers United, the successor to all major garment worker unions, including the ILGWU.

Thanks to the efforts of the ILGWU and all who fought for workplace reforms, real changes got underway immediately; in 1911, New York State initiated the most comprehensive investigation of factory conditions in U.S. history. Their conclusions informed new standards that other states across the country replicated and built upon in subsequent years.

We've come a long way since the fire happened -- but it's clear we still have a long way to go.

After all, workplace safety issues are hardly a thing of the past. It seems like nearly every year, another workplace disaster happens somewhere in the United States. Like last year, when a fertilizer plant in Texas exploded, killing 14 and injuring over 160. Or in 2010, when an explosion at a West Virginia coal mine run by Massey Energy killed 29 miners and the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion left 11 workers dead and caused an enormous environmental disaster.

Thankfully, none of these events matched the human cost of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire -- or the devastating factory collapse in Bangladesh last year where 1,129 people died -- but they should send a similar message. No one should lose his or her life because companies are putting profitmaking ahead of worker protections, and because our government is not performing its critical watchdog role. Experts say that in each of the cases cited above, proper safety precautions could have prevented the devastating accidents.

But companies are not consistent in their practices of adhering to worker safety precautions. So it's up to us -- through pressure on our government and strategically exercising our rights as consumers and shareholders -- to ensure that the right rules are in place and that companies play by them.

This issue of worker safety is of particular concern for undocumented workers who often receive the worst treatment of all. While working in some of our most physically demanding and low-paying jobs -- from construction to landscaping, and from housekeeping to daycare and nursing -- many of their employers also cut corners when it comes to their safety, knowing they are less likely than other workers to stand up for their rights. Immigrants have been crucial contributors to our economy since our nation's founding. Teenagers from Russia, Italy and Germany worked side-by-side at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory -- just as immigrants from all over the world do in today's workplaces -- and it's time we treated them with the fairness and respect they deserve.

How can we avoid these kinds of safety problems and exploitation to begin with? We can start by reinvigorating the role of unions. While unions continue to do everything they can to curb these abuses, the proportion of the workforce that is unionized has eroded dramatically since its peak in the 1950s. To ensure both safety and fairness on the job, workers need to join together on the job to improve their working conditions.

Institutional investors and other shareholders of publicly traded companies also have an important role to play. By pursuing corporate governance reforms when needed and lawsuits when companies commit serious wrongdoing, investors can spur changes from the inside out. Corporate governance actions can't erase the tragedy, but they can help make sure companies -- and their competitors -- are looking out for workers going forward.

Government also needs to step up. In so many cases of workplace safety problems or worker mistreatment, there are laws on the books that just aren't being enforced. Our elected officials need to fight for resources for workplace inspections through agencies like OSHA -- which has consistently faced cuts in recent years -- and ensure thorough investigations when problems are brought to their attention. For citizens, that means making our voices heard about the importance of workplace safety, and voting for elected officials who represent those views.

We can't undo history and bring back those we've lost. But we can prevent others from suffering similar fates -- and work to ensure both safety and fairness in the workplace -- now and in the future.