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Unions, Big Business and the Forgotten Lessons of a Disaster that Killed Dozens of Workers 100 Years Ago this Month

On March 25, 1911, 146 garment workers perished after a fire broke out at the Triangle Waist Company in New York City’s Greenwich Village.

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Smith, Wagner, and the political leaders of the time, fortified by a vibrant progressive movement, ignored these opponents of business regulation. In the first year, the Commission proposed and the legislature quickly passed a package of laws requiring mandatory fire drills, automatic sprinklers, and unlocked doors during work hours that were required to swing outward. They also created rules on the storage and disposal of flammable waste, and they banned smoking from the shop floor.

In the second year, the legislature passed additional reforms. They set the maximum numbers of workers per floor. They established codes requiring new buildings to include fireproof stairways and fire escapes. They required employers to provide clean drinking water, washrooms and toilets for their employees. They gave labor commission inspectors the power to shut down unsanitary tenement sweatshops. And they ruled that women could work no more than 54 hours a week and that children under 18 could not work in dangerous situations.

These pathbreaking state regulations, provoked by the Triangle fire, proved that government could play a powerful role in the lives of ordinary people. Other states followed suit, and ultimately President Franklin Roosevelt, prodded by Perkins, Wagner, and other veterans of New York’s progressive movement, introduced New Deal reforms ending child labor, establishing a federal minimum wage and a 40-hour week, and creating a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that would establish the right of workers to form a union that would bargain collectively with employers.

The Triangle company’s owners were indicted and went on trial for manslaughter, but they were found innocent when the judge told the jury that in order to return a guilty verdict, they had to find that the two defendants knew or should have known that the doors were locked. Harris and Blanck also continued to refuse to recognize the union. But the company never recovered from the fire and the controversy surrounding it, and in 1918, it closed its doors.

That didn’t happen to other city businesses. Contrary to the business leaders’ dire predictions, they did not suffer from the new regulations. The New York Times reported in July 1914, that, “[n]otwithstanding all the talk of a probable exodus of manufacturing interests, the commission has not found a single case of a manufacturer intending to leave the State because of the enforcement of the factory laws.” New York’s Seventh Avenue remained the headquarters of the nation’s garment industry for decades until production gradually moved south and overseas after World War II.

Ironically, 100 years after the Triangle fire, we still hear much of the same rhetoric whenever reformers seek to use government to businesses act more responsibly and protect consumers, workers, and the environment. For example, the disasters last year that killed 29 miners at Upper Big Branch and eleven oil rig workers in the Gulf could have been avoided had lawmakers resisted lobbying by mine owners and BP to weaken safety regulations.

Today, the leading foe of reform is the United States Chamber of Commerce, which is 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.” The Chamber’s most vocal proponent is Darrell Issa, the conservative California Republican who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. At the request of the Chamber and other industry lobbies, Issa recently launched a congressional assault on safeguards in workplaces and communities. 

In January, Issa sent letters to more than 170 companies and business lobby groups—including Duke Energy, FMC Corp., Toyota, Bayer, the American Petroleum Institute, the National Association of Manufacturers, the Association of American Railroads, the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association, and lobbies representing health care, banking, and telecommunication providers—asking them to identify "burdensome government regulations" that they want eliminated.