A little more than a century ago, in the rapidly developing United States of America, nearly 1,000 workers died on the job every week, on average. Collapsed mines buried them alive. Bursting steam engines scalded them to death. Pots of molten steel poured over their heads. Whirling saw blades worked loose in lumber mills and turned to shrapnel. Railroad engines crashed. Merchant ships and fishing boats sank in trackless seas.
In the years since then, the number of workplace fatalities has been cut by more than 90%, even as the population of the country has more than tripled. The risk of death on the job today is but a tiny fraction — less than 1/30th — what it was on the warm spring day in 1911 when 146 garment workers died in New York’s notorious Triangle fire.
Bangladesh now rages and mourns at the latest in an appalling string of garment factory disasters. A shoddy building, illegally constructed on swampy ground, collapsed on April 24. After a week of searching the rubble, the death toll had climbed past 400. This, just five months after a fire killed 112 workers in another factory in the capital of Dhaka, spurred thousands of workers to join a May Day protest, which was echoed by marches throughout Asia.
Can these ghastly events become the sort of catalyst for change that the Triangle fire proved to be in the history of American workplace safety? That depends on what lessons are drawn from history. There is a sentimental version of the Triangle fire aftermath. And there is the true version.
When I set out to write a book about the Triangle fire, I often heard the first version: That the deaths of so many workers, most of them young women and girls, in a high-rise fire witnessed by thousands of helpless bystanders so shocked the conscience of New Yorkers that they could not help but push for safer workplaces. All that was needed was for decent people to become aware of working conditions.
But gradually I learned that the lasting impact of the fire at the Triangle Waist Co., New York’s largest manufacturer of women’s blouses — then called “shirtwaists” — had little to do with tender hearts, and everything to do with political power. In the years leading up to the fire, several rising forces took aim at the corrupt political machinery of New York, known as Tammany Hall. At the upper levels of society, there was the reform movement known as Progressivism. This movement overlapped with the surging women’s suffrage campaign. A more uneasy alliance joined both of these with the burgeoning labor movement.
All three came together briefly to support a waistmakers’ strike in 1909, and when fire struck the Triangle factory barely a year later, they came together again. The corrupt Democrats of Tammany Hall could see that their grip on New York was threatened unless they joined the reform bandwagon somehow.
With the blessing of Tammany boss Charles Murphy, two young stalwarts of the machine named Alfred E. Smith and Robert Wagner took up the cause of workplace safety. As their stars rose in national politics (Smith ran for president in 1928; Wagner championed Roosevelt’s New Deal in the U.S. Senate), their cause increasingly became the Democratic party’s cause, and from there it became a shared national priority.
All because it won votes.
To see Bangladeshi workers organizing themselves in protest is a step along this path — but only one. Just as the shirtwaist strikers of 1909 attracted support from some of the most prominent women in America, the workers of Bangladesh will need friends in high places willing to dial up the pressure. More difficult, the government of the country must be steered away from the widespread and casual corruption that allows an obviously unsafe building to be thrown up under the sleepy eyes of paid-off inspectors.
Those fortunate souls who live in countries where the rule of law is robust tend to take its blessings for granted. It is a hallmark of developed societies, and that is no accident. The rule of law unleashes enterprise and productivity by assuring at least a measure of fair play. This makes entire societies richer.
It’s natural to look at the horror in Bangladesh and weigh a vow never to buy another t-shirt sewn in that country. But no one suffers more from a boycott than the impoverished workers for whom even an unsafe job is better than no job at all.
Better to press our retailers, our fashion brands, our investors, and our governments to use their influence — their power — with foreign leaders to promote the idea that corruption is not just a moral problem; it’s bad business. Killing workers is no way to build an economy, nor will a system of bribes and spoils ever lift a nation to lasting prosperity. That’s a message even hard-hearted people can understand, and you need them to get things done.