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Labor History Demonstrates the Need to Raise Wages

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Last week was the 110th anniversary of the Triangle Fire. The historian Christopher Gorham places the current fight for higher minimum wages in the context of that tragedy.

The national debate over a $15 federal minimum wage often cites fast-food workers as low-wage earners mired in the cycle of unbreakable poverty. However, thousands of others, mostly impoverished women and children, trudge to dingy, crowded factories in cities such as New York and Los Angeles — and wherever there is concentrated cheap immigrant labor. Sewing our sneakers, T-shirts and coronavirus masks behind windowless steel doors are 200,000 garment workers, many of whom are immigrants from Asia, Latin America and Africa.

These workers are among the 1.2 million Americans who work for less than the minimum wage of $7.25 (unchanged since 2009). Paid per piece of cloth sewn or cut, rather than by the hour, they slog for as little as $5 an hour. Raising the hourly wage is the right course economically as it would bring these workers — along with the poultry processors and child caregivers — out of poverty while at the same time addressing persistent inequalities.

The exploitation of American workers is not new. A century ago, recent immigrants and their children sacrificed their lungs, eyesight and fingers for lower-cost goods for consumers and higher profits for owners. Then as now, the hours were long, the pay was poor and conditions were often dangerous.

On Saturday, March 25, 1911, hundreds of young women of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, mostly immigrants from Eastern Europe and Southern Italy, were collecting their weekly pay. As they stood in line hoping to salvage a bit of their meager weekend, a fire broke out in a fabric scrap bin in one of the workrooms. Within minutes the top three floors were an inferno.

Thirty minutes later it was all over. The freight elevators and staircases saved many of the 500 workers that day. But those who sought the back staircase were doomed as the factory owners had locked the door to prevent theft and unauthorized breaks. Police found a six-foot-high pile of bodies at that doorway. The fire escape was equally useless, bending under the weight of those fleeing for their lives. Faced with burning to death, over 50 women went to the windows and flung themselves to the pavement below.

The tragedy galvanized the labor movement and led to the creation of fire safety codes, factory inspections and restrictions on child labor. A generation later President Franklin D. Roosevelt promised a Depression-weary nation “a New Deal for the American people.” The New Deal provided the opportunity to broaden the earlier reforms into a comprehensive nationwide safety net for workers. The catalyst was Frances Perkins, labor secretary during the Roosevelt years. Perkins, the first woman Cabinet member in U.S. history, had witnessed the fire and heard the futile cries, “Don’t jump!”

Perkins went on to play a critical role in transforming American work as Secretary of Labor, particularly in creating the Fair Labor Standards Act which legislated a federal minimum wage for the first time. The larger point here though is that the struggle for justice never ends. It may ebb and flow and the contours of the struggle may change. But it’s one endless war.

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