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Lessons for OR from Triangle Fire Tragedy

March 25, 2011

EUGENE, Ore. - Oregon workers and workplaces are safer as a result of a tragedy that took place 100 years ago today. It's the anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which raced through three floors of a New York City sweatshop. It claimed 146 victims - most of them young immigrant women, trapped by a locked door and forced to jump to their deaths. The fire prompted a host of government-enforced workplace protections, but many were fought by the business community.

A century later, Gordon Lafer, an associate professor at the University of Oregon's Labor Education and Research Center, wonders if history is repeating itself.

"There were proposals that eventually became law to say companies had to have working fire escapes, and they needed to have fireproof elevators, and they couldn't lock the doors - and business leaders said, 'This will destroy business,' and 'The best government is the least government.' We're now hearing those exact same things said, about all kinds of other regulations."

Lafer says today, the country is still debating the importance of workers' rights.

"We're not back to 1910 in terms of working conditions, but a lot of the progress made by that generation and the generations that came after that - in terms of making workplaces safer, enabling people to work humane hours and make a decent living - is now under attack, all around the country. Some for reasons of globalization, some for reasons of politics."

Joel Sosinsky, who has written a new book about the Triangle fire, says the labor movement continues to face challenges.

"It's 100 years later and, in some respects, nothing has changed. And when you see what's going on in Wisconsin and other states that have similar initiatives to take away collective-bargaining rights, it just breaks your heart."

A documentary called "Triangle: Remembering the Fire" is airing this month on HBO. More information is online at rememberthetrianglefire.org.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - OR