An essay by Elena Oelfke
On March 25, 1911, one of New York's most horrific tragedies occurred in the Asch Building owned by the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. The building was the workplace for 500 people, most of whom were immigrants or people living in poverty who worked long hours with little pay, and in dangerous, unsafe conditions. When a fire broke out on one of the top floors of the building, many people died within minutes because the building had blocked fire exits; other workers jumped out of the building to avoid being burned alive. In all, 146 workers lost their lives that day. Further, the company didn't give workers any health insurance, worsening the tragedy for the families left behind. A group of ladies in the Ladies' Waist and Dress Makers' Union gathered to supply relief work for the survivors and families of victims. Due to the pressure from persistent and loyal Union groups, the company paid $75 to each family of a victim and the company was forced to reevaluate and enhance their fire exits and safety precautions. It was also discovered during the tragedy that the ladders of the firemen were not tall enough to reach the upper floors of the building, and this tragedy led to new requirements that fire fighting ladders had to reach the top of the tallest buildings. This tragedy was only one example of the many workplace accidents that have occurred over time. American workers knew that something had to be done to make the workplace safer and cleaner. Tragedies like this fire helped improve safety in the workplace.
The beginning of the labor union movement marked a turning point in history. For the first time, people were speaking up about their rights. The dawn of the unions created a balance between the interactions of the employer and the worker. Unions have had three major contributions to health and safety in the workplace, including: 1) unions have been a voice for workers in the workplace and have enabled laws to be passed that benefit the worker; 2) they provide workers with information about their rights and available safety programs; and 3) they encourage workers to exercise their rights to reduce their fear of employee retribution. Efforts by unions and the labor movement ultimately lead to the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, which lead to the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. This federal agency oversees safety and health standards at places of work. The American labor movement has resulted in health insurance protection, protection in dangerous workplaces, higher pay, and shorter hours for workers. Efforts to make the workplace safer have been the object of local unions for many years.
The need for union involvement in worker safety is still necessary today. In 2010, an explosion at a local Tesoro refinery resulted in the death of seven workers. A weld on an exchanger blew up and instantly melted aluminum up to 100 feet away because it had not been inspected using the most recent sophisticated methods. It's up to the American labor movement to advocate for better health and safety laws that will continue to benefit workers in the future. A challenge for the labor movement is the declining union membership from 20.1 percent in 1983 to 11.8 percent in 2011. If unions are going to maintain their ability to enhance worker's health and safety, the trend in union membership will have to change.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire was a pivotal event in the history of the labor movement and in gaining health and safety rights for workers. At the 50th anniversary of that fire, in 1961, the ILGWU union president made the memorable quote which rings true today: "These were our martyrs because what we couldn't accomplish by reasoning with the bosses, by pleading with the bosses, by arguing with the bosses, they accomplished with their deaths." It is important that the labor movement not become complacent and allow workers rights to decline. It is equally important that all Americans remain vigilant in fighting for basic health and safety rights within the workplace, wherever they work. We honor those who died tragically by fighting for basic rights they were denied.
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