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Published: Friday, 3/25/2011

Triangle Shirtwaist fire, unions, and worker safety

BY JOSEPH SLATER

Friday is the 100th anniversary of an American workplace disaster: the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. This tragedy reminds us of the importance of unions and collective bargaining in protecting the safety — and sometimes the lives — of workers.

When the fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. on the top floors of a building in New York City, more than 200 employees jammed the only available exit.

The company had locked the other door, claiming it needed to do so to stop employee theft.

There was just one working elevator. The fire escape collapsed. Many workers jumped from window ledges and fell to their deaths in front of large crowds.

In all, 146 workers died, many of their bodies charred beyond recognition. The victims were mostly women.

Investigations showed that health and safety laws were inadequate. A retired New York City fire chief testified that employers "pay absolutely no attention to the fire hazard or to the protection of the employees in these buildings. That is their last consideration." The fire department had cited the Triangle building for its lack of fire escapes just a week before the disaster.

Many other companies in the industry and area were unionized. Had the Triangle Shirtwaist workers succeeded in their efforts to form a union that could have negotiated health and safety issues, they might have had a much better chance of surviving.

Progressives won some reforms in this era, but business and real estate owners often fought basic workplace rules.

After the fire department ordered New York warehouses to install sprinklers, the Protective League of Property Owners denounced the idea, complaining of "cumbersome and costly" equipment.

The Associated Industries of New York claimed safety regulations would mean "the wiping out of industry in this state." The Real Estate Board argued that new laws would drive "manufacturers out of the City and State of New York."

Such claims echo whenever unions or legislatures attempt to give workers basic rights. The role of unions has long been crucial in the fight for workplace safety.

The International Ladies Garment Workers Union bargained with employers to create a Joint Board of Sanitary Control, to help make workplaces safer. Its counterpart in the men's garment industry also worked to ensure safer workplaces. These unions saved thousands of lives.

Workplace safety laws do not enforce themselves. Even in workplaces that are covered by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act, inspections are rare and enforcement is infrequent. Union-negotiated safety rules that employees help shape and enforce remain vital safeguards.

In Ohio, Senate Bill 5 would undermine such protections. Public employees are not covered by federal or state occupational health and safety laws. Rules on workplace safety for public workers come from union collective-bargaining contracts.

Senate Bill 5 would take away the collective-bargaining rights of a large number of workers. For others, it would allow bargaining — but if the parties can't agree, the law would strip away the right both to strike and to go to binding arbitration. It would substitute a system in which the employer can unilaterally determine contract terms, including those involving health and safety.

History, from the Triangle Shirtwaist fire to last year's Upper Big Branch disaster in West Virginia that killed 29 miners and the BP fiasco in the Gulf of Mexico that killed 11 oil workers, shows that employers — especially nonunion employers — too often lobby to weaken or ignore workplace health and safety laws.

Harold Sahitberger, the president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, warns that Senate Bill 5 would jeopardize rules that protect firefighters. Such rules cover such things as protective equipment and minimum staffing levels for response teams.

Mark Sanders, president of the Ohio Association of Professional Fire Fighters, says the bill threatens labor-management safety committees. In Cincinnati, he says, such a committee found ladders had not been tested according to industry standards. They were collapsing and leading to injuries.

On this anniversary, citizens of Ohio should remember the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and the history of workplace safety. Senate Bill 5 would undermine the safety of our firefighters, police officers, teachers, and other public workers.

Joseph E. Slater is a professor at the University of Toledo College of Law.



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