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103 Years After Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, Many Still Fight Workplace Safety Laws

Today is the 103nd anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York's Greenwich Village. The tragedy took the lives of 146 young immigrant garment workers. Most were trapped and died behind the building’s locked doors and others plunged to their deaths as they jumped from windows from the eighth floor and above.

(Watch the AFL-CIO video above that was produced for the 100th anniversary of the tragic fire.)

It also galvanized a movement to raise workplace safety standards and enact other labor law reforms. The horrible deaths and accounts of the sweatshop conditions, locked doors and barred windows rallied public support and that of many lawmakers for stronger fire codes, workplace safety laws, child labor regulations and other workplace safety regulations. But garment manufacturers and other business groups fought against any new laws.

As Peter Dreier and Donald Cohen write today in The Huffington Post:

Businesses today, and their allies in Congress and the statehouses, are making the same arguments against government regulation that New York's business leaders made a century ago. The current hue and cry about 'burdensome government regulations' that stifle job growth shows that the lesson of the Triangle has been forgotten—at least by those who have a stake in historical amnesia.   

They single out the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as “the leading foe of reform…which has been on a crusade against the Obama administration's plans to set new rules on unsafe workplaces, industrial hazards and threats to public health. The Chamber labels every effort at reform a ‘job killer.’"

They also call Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, “[t]he Chamber's most vocal ally in Congress” and point to other Republicans “who instinctively parrot the Chamber's mantra that 'excessive regulation costs jobs.'”

Read the full column by Dreier, who teaches politics and chairs the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College, and Cohen, chair of In the Public Interest, a national resource center on privatization and responsible contracting.

While working conditions and job safety laws in the United States have improved tremendously since Triangle (though much still needs to be done), similar tragedies continue to occur around the world where labor laws and conditions aren’t much further advanced than in early 20th century America.

Two fires in 2012 claimed the lives of more than 400 Bangladeshi clothing workers and last year a building collapse in Bangladesh killed more than 1,100 garment workers. More than 150 global clothing makers and retailers that contract to Bangladeshi factories have signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety that Bangladeshi, international unions and other groups developed following the fires. But others haven’t, including Walmart and VF Corp., which owns high-profile brands such as The North Face, Timberland and JanSport.

Click here to tell The North Face and Timberland maker VF Corp. to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.

A video from the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights outlines how, in a “race to the bottom” by manufacturers and retailers, garment workers around the world today face many of the same unsafe and deadly conditions as the Triangle Shirtwaist workers. Click here to view. (Warning: The video contains some graphic and disturbing images.)    

Learn more about the tragic Triangle fire from UNITE HERE, the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition and from Cornell University's Kheel Center.

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