Since 1911, there have been major strides to protect workers, regardless of immigration status: Standards for basic minimum wage and overtime pay have been enacted as well as prohibitions against discrimination. However, this does not mean workplace exploitation is a thing of the past. Widespread labor law violations in low- wage industries including pay below minimum wage, unpaid overtime, and a lack of any breaks are as common today as they were over 100 years ago.
Immigrant workers, then and now, are vulnerable in the workplace due to their immigration status and limited English proficiency. Immigrant workers – the backbone of many industries in the U.S. economy – face some of the harshest working conditions, toil the longest hours, and are concentrated in jobs that do not pay a living wage. Failure to protect the rights of immigrant workers threatens the rights of all workers, driving down wages and working conditions for the labor force as a whole. The vulnerability of immigrant workers also directly affects their families and creates significant challenges for them to fully contribute to American society.
To systematically address the crisis of worker abuse, the U.S. needs commonsense reforms to protect workers. Our vision of reform includes all workers advocating together for better wages, working conditions, and other protections. America needs to increase enforcement of its existing labor laws to protect workers. Equally as important, we must address the 11 million undocumented immigrants living and working in this country by creating a registration process that leads to lawful permanent resident status and eventual citizenship. Any employment-based immigration program must include provision for full labor rights; the right to change jobs; and a path to permanent residency and citizenship. The new system must facilitate and enforce equal rights for all workers and minimize the opportunities for abuse by unscrupulous employers. Everyone has a stake in addressing labor violations. We applaud NYCOSH for being a leading voice on worker safety and health. Uniting to advocate for worker rights, we can achieve fairness and opportunity for all.
Protecting the rights of immigrant
workers helps all workers
Widespread labor law violations in low-wage
industries … are as
as they were
over 100 years ago.
By Stuart Appelbaum
President of the Jewish Labor Committee
The depth of the Triangle shirtwaist factory tragedy is profound. It was a preventable event literally fueled by greed and incredible disregard for basic human rights. 146 innocent young workers perished, victims of negligent homicide. Unfortunately, our history shows that it takes disasters to secure much needed protective measures in the workplace. In the fire’s aftermath, important legislation and regulations were passed, especially in relation to fire and building safety and compensation for work-related injuries. These significant victories did not happen in a vacuum. They were driven by a tremendous outpouring of anger over the callous disregard for peoples’ rights in the workplace, and the absence of appropriate penalties for employer misconduct. Union membership in New York also grew dramatically after the fire. Workers realized that to win better and safer working conditions, they had to stand together in a union. The United Hebrew Trades, which became the New York division of the Jewish Labor Committee, was very active in these struggles.
SO MUCH NEEDS TO BE DONE. Women still earn much less than their male counterparts. Immigrant workers are highly exploited: They disproportionately toil in the most hazardous jobs and despite the desire of many to join unions, numerous obstacles remain. Union membership is painfully low. As long as workers are too afraid for their jobs to raise health and safety issues, we need strengthened workplace protections. If workers don’t have the strength and protection of a union to fight to reduce hazards at the workplace, we need rigorous workplace enforcement. OSHA regulations have directly contributed to the significant decrease in workplace fatalities. The agency, severely underfunded and understaffed from the outset, has been a life saver, and not as detractors claim, a job killer. The new forces in Congress are clear that they want to turn the clock back to 1911. That is outrageous and we will not let them. We, the public, value safety and want workplaces where workers earn a fair wage and are treated with dignity and respect. We cannot entrust our lives to those employers whose predominant concern is the immediate bottom line.
100 Years after the
so much still to be done
The Triangle fire was a preventable event literally
and incredible disregard for basic human rights.
By Eric Frumin Director of Occupational Safety and Health for Change to Win in his Book
Triangle: The Fire that Changed America , author David Von Drehle wrote about “fundamental reforms” sparked by the fire. But in a review, CUNY history professor Mike Wallace noted that:
[The “ fundamental change” von Drehle reported], while inspiring, overlooks the fact that history can run backward, and that gains won can be lost again – and have been, repeatedly. Many of the initial post-Triangle reforms were strenuously opposed by conservative businessmen…who were soon back in the saddle and able to halt, hamstring or reverse liberal initiatives….
The New Deal expanded the terrain of social democracy; but by the late 1930’s, opponents … dismantled many of its signature programs. In the 1960s and 70s, reformers won health and safety and pollution regulations. Today’s free marketeers are whittling these away. And sweatshops that exploit vulnerable, unorganized immigrant workers are again alive and malignantly well in New York City.
How far back has history taken the movement, and what are our current challenges? Our most pressing task is to take collective action, and get the power only collective action produces. As people today confront corporate elites and their political allies in state capitals across the country, and national capitals around the world, we should follow the instructions of legendary organizer Mother Jones: “Mourn for the Dead, and Fight Like Hell For the Living!” We must fight to:
Put America back to work. No real reforms are possible when workers are desperate for jobs. Corporate America must spend its horde of cash rehiring the millions of Americans it recently laid off.
Adopt a fair system for worker representation, and stop rampant employer abuse of National Labor Relations Act loopholes.
Pass the Protecting America’s Workers Act (PAWA) and Byrd Mine Safety Act, to expand coverage and enforcement authority for OSHA and MSHA.
Update critical safety and health standards, so that workers and employers in all economic sectors can finally stop the ongoing toll of death, injury and disease in the workplace.
A century after the Triangle bosses committed wholesale manslaughter, then walked away unpunished, America confronts again the question: Whose interest is paramount, that of working people or the wealthy few? We only know one answer to pass on to our children and grandchildren: Si Se Puede. Another world is possible.
History can run backwards
Our most pressing task is to take
collective action, and
get the power only collective action produces.
Fighting back for workers’ rights
Last year, young garment workers in Ashulia, Bangladesh, jumped to their deaths from the 10th and 11th floors when a fire overtook the Ha-Meem factory. This horrible story was a mirror image of what happened at the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire. Locked doors, once again. While Triangle spurred a nation to action, we must not slip back. Workers are still being killed in workplaces not only in Bangladesh, but here at home. Calls for less regulation continue to put workers in jeopardy. One year ago, 29 workers died in Massey Energy’s underground mine in Montcoal, West Virginia. Despite an unprecedented response by the U.S. Labor Department, Congress has yet to act. A party-line vote engineered by Republicans in Congress blocked legislation for stronger enforcement mechanisms to protect miners and stop rogue employers like Massey. But workers and our allies are fighting back. In Bangladesh today, where the garment and textile industry is now the nation’s largest industry sector, workers are actively fighting for a better life. We need to push for stronger global standards for workers, so that labor rights and workers’ safety rules are enforced domestically and globally no matter where the work is being done. In this hemisphere, unions joined by allies like the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) and the Worker Rights Consortium have had successes. Student pressure made the University of Wisconsin-Madison cancel its contract with Nike last spring due to labor violations in Nike’s Honduran plants. Meanwhile, SweatFree Communities has gotten municipalities to join a SweatFree Procurement Consortium and sign SweatFree Procurement Ordinances.
The workers I have the privilege of representing go to work every day with the legacy of Triangle workers providing the wind on their backs. They know that they are protected thanks to the heroism of these brave women and men. But, we must keep the flame burning. We must redouble our own efforts to empower workers everywhere.
The U.S. remains a laggard in worker protections
In the bad old days of the Triangle fire, life was cheap; a hundred workers a day sacrificed on the altar of industrial progress. We’ve come a long way since then. Or have we? We have made great progress in some respects – a federal law to protect workers’ safety and health and great leaps in the technology to protect workers’ lives. But the reality is that we have made much greater advances in technology than in actually ensuring that every worker returns home safe at the end of the day. Some 15 workers still lose their lives every day on the job from injuries – and many more from long-latent illnesses. Worse, many, if not most, of these deaths are from easily preventable causes. In the past year, the U.S. public’s attention was caught by the dramatic workplace tragedies that followed one after another – the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in West Virginia, the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the Tesoro refinery explosion in Washington State. These multiple-fatality tragedies garner headlines and cause politicians in Congress to bang their fists on tables, demanding action. But our country suffers from a silent epidemic of workplace deaths that elicit little or no outrage. The construction worker with no harness who falls to his death from an unguarded roof. The sanitation worker with no protection or training who enters a confined space permeated with deadly chemical fumes. The 18–year-old kid in his first week on the job who is buried alive in a collapsed trench.
These incidents happen daily across the U.S., and each one is the sort of hazard that we have known about since the days of the Triangle fire, for which simple preventive measures are easily available. Yet they keep happening, day after day, year after year. We have made progress, yes. But the U.S. remains a laggard among the industrialized nations in worker protections. A recent study ranked the U.S. number 29 out of the 30 OECD countries in worker safety and health protections, managing to beat out only Turkey, a country with a per capita GDP one-third of the U.S.’s. With conservatives in Congress decrying the supposedly “job-killing” effects of OSHA protections, we could be on our way to becoming a first-world economy with third-world working conditions. America’s workers deserve better and surely, 100 years after the Triangle Fire, we are capable of doing better by them – much better.
Our country suffers from a silent epidemic of workplace deaths that elicit little or no outrage