Attorney General Eric Schneiderman Commemorates the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire


By Eric Schneiderman
March 25th 2011

One hundred years ago today, New York City suffered the deadliest industrial disaster in its history. The memory of the 146 people who lost their lives in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire stands as a reminder that legal protections and workplace safety standards were won through a long struggle for social justice and at great human cost.

Tragically, a century later, many of my colleagues in government seem to have forgotten the lessons of that unspeakable disaster. Over the last decade progress has slowed and, in many states, workers' rights have been seriously weakened.

Last year, 29 West Virginians perished in the nation's worst mine disaster in four decades. The Massey Energy mine had received 1,100 safety violations over the three previous years for improper ventilation and poor escape routes, but this death trap continued to operate.

Despite repeated warnings, citations and accidents, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion cost the lives of 11 people and injured 16 others before burning and sinking into the Gulf of Mexico, causing one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history.

And in 2005, after years of safety violations, a fire and explosion at a BP oil refinery in Texas claimed the lives of 15 workers. There have been at least four other major safety incidents in the years following the blast.

Now, in Wisconsin, we are seeing a radical assault on employee protections, which 10 years ago would have seemed unimaginable in its scope.

And right here in New York, people are struggling in working conditions not much safer or fairer than the sweatshops of 1911.

There are nearly 80,000 farmworkers in every corner of New York State - they harvest apples in Western New York, onions and corn in the Hudson Valley, grapes in the Finger Lakes region and plants on Long Island.

The workers who harvest our food have been systematically denied the basic rights that are granted to all other American workers. They can be fired for trying to form a union, or for attempting to improve their working conditions. They are not eligible for overtime pay, disability or even unemployment insurance. They work seven days a week, and many have reported physical and sexual abuse.

We can and we must do better.

One tool at our disposal is the new Wage Theft Protection Act, a law that creates criminal penalties for unscrupulous employers who fail to pay their workers. Some groups estimate that more than $1 billion is stolen each year from employees in New York City alone, resulting in $50 million in lost tax revenue. By cracking down on wage theft, we can make sure workers and taxpayers are not getting ripped off by crooked employers.

And through litigation and legislation, our state can do even more to protect safety and fairness in the workplace.

From Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican who built bridges between labor and management, to Frances Perkins, a witness to the Triangle fire who led the fight for safer workplace standards as the nation's first female cabinet secretary, to the men and women who have fought for better wages and safe working conditions over the last century, New York has a proud history of standing up for working people.

We can lead the nation again. To truly honor the memories of those who lost their lives 100 years ago today, we can't afford to wait another century to get it right.

Schneiderman is Attorney General of New York.