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Labor’s turning point

‘We've gone back a century”: The fire’s fallout

Improvements here but setbacks overseas


“It was as though we had all done something wrong. It shouldn't have been. We were sorry. Mea culpa! Mea culpa!”

Speaking at Cornell University in 1964, Frances Perkins, who had been secretary of labor under President Franklin Roosevelt, reflected on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, which she had witnessed some 50 years earlier where 146 workers had been killed. “It was a terrible thing for the people of the City of New York and the State of New York to face.”

A 31-year-old New York City resident, Perkins had looked on in horror as young, immigrant women, primarily from Italy and Eastern Europe, were forced from the windows of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory by the flames and heat. She would later say that witnessing the tragedy brought about “the birth of the New Deal.”

Urged on by Perkins, the National Women's Trade Union League and a grieving public, the state legislature created the Factory Investigating Commission of New York in December 1911, nine months after the fire. A first of its kind, the commission facilitated the state’s involvement in investigating labor conditions. Massachusetts, Illinois and other industrial states would follow suit.

In 4 years, 36 new laws

Having installed Perkins as its chief investigator, the commission’s members traveled the state for four years and produced a seven-volume report detailing the hazardous conditions in factories, abuses of workers and, most critically, actionable recommendations for the legislature.

By 1915, 36 pieces of pro-labor legislation were signed into law. Among other directives, the new laws mandated the installation of sprinkler systems and smoke alarms, exit doors that opened outward and stayed unlocked during working hours and lighted exit signs. Workers’ compensation regulations were also enacted. This comprehensive legislation gave New York State the most robust worker protections in the country and would serve as a model for other states.

Perkins continued her work following the disbandment of the committee, and, in 1933, joined Roosevelt’s cabinet as his secretary of labor. Following the path she laid down in New York, she shepherded historic progressive legislation at the federal level.

The Social Security Act and the National Labor Relations Act—the latter creating the National Labor Relations Board and the right for workers to unionize—were signed into law in 1935. The Fair Labor Standards Act—which codified the 40-hour work week, minimum wage, overtime pay, and restricted child labor—followed in 1938.

It wasn't until 1970 that the next major piece of progressive, pro-labor legislation was passed with the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and with that, the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration or OSHA.

“The lasting legacy is a transformed state,” said Annelise Orleck, a professor of history at Dartmouth University.“It's the New Deal State. It's the social safety net we take for granted even if it's tattered. I think there's a legacy of that time that we have lost, which is that a person shouldn't have to risk death every day to make a living.”

Bangladesh: a ‘direct corollary’

The manufacturing industry has been completely transformed in the 111 years following the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. And while labor and worker-protection laws have elevated safety and welfare here, fewer labor and environmental protections elsewhere have made the developing world a more attractive manufacturing destination, with the result being that a vast number of factories have moved overseas, mainly to Asia. According to the Department of Labor, there were roughly 105,000 garment manufacturers in New York City alone in 1990.

By 2016, there were roughly just 18,000 manufacturing facilities within the entire state.

“In order to understand the conditions under which garments are made today, you need to understand Bangladesh,” said Orleck, the author of “We’re All Fast-Food Workers Now.” “It's not irrelevant to us. Most of us are wearing clothes made in places like Bangladesh. The direct corollary to Triangle is there, where there are hundreds of fires, and where everyone knows someone who's died in the fire.”

Disaster struck the Rana Plaza Factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2013 when 1,134 workers were killed, and roughly 2,500 were injured, after the building, housing five different factories, collapsed.

As in 1911, shock and outrage from both the local and international communities followed and major clothing brands operating in Bangladesh—such as H&M, Hugo Boss and Zara—were pressured into adopting the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.

A legally binding five-year agreement between unions and more than 200 retailers, the accord requires that retailers and manufacturers cooperate with independent inspections chosen by unions and workers, obliges retailers and manufacturers to pay for necessary repairs and upgrades, allows workers to file complaints about hazardous working conditions and to refuse work they deem unsafe, and provides safety training for workers and management.

“They look to the Triangle fire. They wore shirts that had pictures of them alongside pictures of Triangle workers saying: ‘Not one more fire,’” Orleck said.

Following the accord’s enactment, deaths of workers in Bangladeshi garment factories decreased from an average of 200 per year to none.

Workers’ rights under threat

The accord was renewed in 2018 and then again, under a new name, the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry, in September 2021 for an additional two years.

“That's the wave of the future. We're looking at similar kinds of agreements potentially in factories where electronic chips are made and we see it in agriculture,” Orleck said. “We have these alternatives and they're really promising.”

Garment factories remaining in New York have struggled to remain competitive in the globalized labor market. In order to cut manufacturing costs, the labor force, composed of mostly young, immigrant women, primarily from Latin America and China, has been subject to widespread violations of the legislation born out of the progressive era.

“We've gone back a century in terms of workers rights,” Orleck said. “There are many reasons for this, but one of them is the gig economy, which I call an end run around the New Deal Labor Protections. It means that nobody's an employee anymore— everybody's a contractor.”

Classifying workers as contractors, rather than employees, effectively exempts them from the basic rights granted by the Fair Labor Standards Act and other New Deal legislation like the minimum wage, a 40-hour work week and overtime pay. Another industry trend, payment according to a piece-rate system, or per piece produced, rather than at an hourly or annual rate, all but guarantees workers make less than the minimum wage.

The most aggressive response to the abuses of garment industry workers, as well as to the environmental costs, proposed in New York State is the New York Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act. The act would require companies with over $100 million in global revenue, conducting business in New York, to map out a minimum of 50 percent of their supply chain. The bill, currently in committee in both houses, does not specify which 50 percent, but brands would be required to disclose median wages for workers in their disclosed supply chain and the measures they take to ensure responsible labor practices.

Companies that violate the law could be fined up to 2 percent of annual revenue. The reporting would be made available to the public.

“If this bill passes, how are they going to hold these brands accountable? What are the mechanisms that are going to be monitoring? The biggest risk is when you have companies self-reporting and nobody’s auditing. That’s always a little bit of a slippery slope,” says Marci Zaroff, founder of Ecofashion. “But, the fact is, it's a step one to create awareness, to hold fashion brands and companies accountable.”


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