SEATTLE - Washington 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 some forced to jump to their deaths. The fire prompted a host of government-enforced workplace protections, although many were fought by the business community.
Today, Gordon Lafer, an associate professor at the University of Oregon's Labor Education and Research Center, wonders if history is repeating itself.
"What has not changed is the role of the business lobbies. On everything - everything to do with safety, the creation of the minimum wage, working hours, at every single point over the last hundred years - the business lobbies have said, 'Any more protections for workers will destroy jobs.'"
Lafer says the Triangle fire boosted public demands for workers' rights, issues that were also raised here in Washington.
"The same year as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, the state of Washington proposed legislation to create an eight-hour day - just for women. Men could still work longer, but women were going to have an eight-hour day. And in Spokane, the Chamber of Commerce came out, outraged, and said this would destroy jobs and drive all the business out of the state of Washington, if the state enacted it."
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.