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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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The business groups responded with a long wish list, including rules to control “combustible dust” that has resulted in explosions killing workers; rules to track musculoskelal disorders, such as tendonitis, carpal tunnel, or back injuries, that impact millions of workers at keyboards, in construction, or in meat processing; and rules to address workplace noise that leads to hearing loss. And Republicans listened. They are proposing to cut OSHA’s budget by 20 percent, which, coming on top of decades of cuts, would cripple an agency that has been effective at significantly reducing workplace injuries and deaths.

The Republican leadership is trying to drive home the message, in Speaker John Boehner’s words, that “excessive regulation costs jobs” and that the “path to prosperity” is by “getting government out of the way.” Americans of earlier generations—who enjoyed the benefits of the Progressive Era and the New Deal reforms, and the political clout of a vibrant labor movement—understood this was nonsense, but it seems like the lessons of the past have to be relearned again. That’s why it is important to recall the sordid circumstances in which 146 young women lost their lives at the Triangle Waist Company a century ago.

 

 

This article originally appeared in The New Republic .

Peter Dreier teaches politics and chairs the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His next book, "The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century," will be published later this year by Nation Books. Donald Cohen directs the Cry Wolf Project.