Human Rights

100 Years After Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, Workers Face Dangers Born of Greed

In "Triangle's Echoes: The Unfinished Struggle for Worker Protection, Safety and Health," filmmaker Harry Hanbury shows the fight for workers' rights is far from over.

As fire engulfed the factory floor, the seamstresses and workers of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in Manhattan threw themselves out of the 9th-floor windows, diving to their deaths. The stairwell doors had been locked by the factory boss, who said he feared the workers would steal from the company.

Of the 146 female workers who perished in the fire 100 years ago were a number who helped lead the first successful strike of women workers the year before, when the International Ladies Garment Workers Union was in its infancy. Although the ILGWU succeeded in gaining an improvement in working conditions and wages from most of the companies targeted by the strike, the bosses of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company refused to sign the agreement.

The bodies of women and girls, many of them teenagers, lay crumpled on the sidewalk, drawing gawkers and photographers -- and Frances Perkins, a consumers' advocate whose activism for workers' rights in the wake of the fire would pave her path to become the nation's first woman secretary of labor (and first woman cabinet officer). She was appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt.

In "Triangle's Echoes" (video below), a documentary short by Harry Hanbury, we learn that today -- thanks to the country's tilt to the right -- industrial, agricultural and even retail workers once again face horrible risks. Think Deepwater Horizon and the Upper Big Branch mine.

Those disasters we know about because national news outlets focused on them. But every day, children toil in the crop fields of America, handling machetes and breathing in dangerous chemicals. Existing regulations are often not enforced, whether in the industrial, agriculture or financial sectors, because of the influence of big global capitalists, such as the Koch brothers, on our politics. As Hanbury's film points out, the penalty for an employer whose practices kills a worker is a mere $7,000.

"Triangle's Echoes," made with support from the National Consumers League, features interviews with advocates and labor and government officials who lay out a convincing case that a renewed push for the enforcement of workplace safety practices and injunctions against child labor is greatly needed.

Triangle's Echoes: The Unfinished Struggle for Worker Protection, Safety and Health

Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington bureau chief. Follow her on Twitter:
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