The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Triangle Fire and the fight for $15

Why a living wage makes sense economically.

An activist wears a Fight For $15 T-shirt during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on July 18, 2019. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
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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!”

Driven by that memory, she was the force behind unemployment insurance, collective bargaining and the precursor to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The keystone of Perkins’s tenure was the formulation of the Social Security Act, signed into law in 1935. Yet that accomplishment was tempered the same year when the Supreme Court struck down New York’s minimum-wage law.

Roosevelt’s overwhelming victory in 1936 and his threat to pack the Supreme Court produced a reversal. A 1937 Supreme Court decision paved the way for a federal minimum wage. “What happened to that nice unconstitutional bill you tucked away?” the president asked his labor secretary. After winding its way through both chambers of Congress, Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act on June 25, 1938. The federal minimum wage was established.

From the outset, the minimum wage was designed to be a living wage. Roosevelt had long championed the “change from starvation wages and starvation employment to living wages and sustained employment,” but he had to rely on voluntary compliance from industry. With the minimum-wage law, such a change would finally be mandated by the federal government. Sharing the conviction that working people should not be mired in poverty, Roosevelt told Perkins to “peg wages at a living level.” These pro-labor policies did much to ameliorate the wide disparity between rich and poor and led to nearly a half-century of middle-class growth.

Today, however, we are reckoning with the long reversal of the New Deal’s priorities and the abandonment of the living wage. Since 1980, the economy has expanded and corporate profits have skyrocketed, but wages have flatlined. Put simply, workers don’t share the profits of their productivity. If the federal minimum wage had kept pace with our rising productivity, it would be more than $20 an hour, not today’s poverty wage of $7.25.

The arguments against the increase are not economically compelling. A common claim from conservative economists is that raising the minimum wage raises the price of goods and services to levels that consumers would be unwilling to pay. According to one recent study, however, doubling the salary of sweatshop workers would only increase the consumer cost of an item by 1.8 percent while consumers would be willing to pay 15 percent more to know a product did not come from a sweatshop. Responding to claims of widespread job loss, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen recently testified that the effect of raising the minimum wage on jobs would be “minimal, if anything.”

As for the argument that low-wage jobs are an escalator out of poverty, well, Florence Kelly, a crusader against child labor from the generation before Perkins, saw this for the myth it was back in 1898, when she said “the garment-workers … poor, unorganized … remain forever on the verge of pauperism, irrespective of their endless toil.” The past 40 years of data have borne out Kelly’s skepticism.

Jobs that can lift out of poverty, good jobs, were recently defined by the Brookings Institution as those paying median earnings or more for a given metropolitan area and providing health insurance. The researchers found that such jobs are held by only 20 percent of workers in big cities without a college degree. As for the other 80 percent? The average age of a minimum-wage earner is 35, and nearly six in 10 are women. These are not teenagers bagging groceries after school; they are mothers with children, working full time and stuck in poverty.

The Raise the Wage Act is a step toward increasing the number of good jobs. A wage of $15 per hour would transform the lives of 32 million Americans, 19 million of them women; one in four Black or Latina.

British economist Joan Robinson once said, “The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.” But the exploitation isn’t just the wealthy taking advantage of the poor, it is even more corrosive. It is men taking advantage of women, the private sector delegitimizing the public sector and citizen set against immigrant.

As the New Dealers proved, profit-making can coexist with the mitigation of misery. By prioritizing the needs of the most vulnerable, we can reduce the gulf between wealth and poverty, address gender and racial pay inequality, provide the promise of America to the immigrants who come here seeking a better life and empower the government to check the excesses of corporations.

The New Deal wouldn’t have been the transformative event in modern American history without Frances Perkins, and Frances Perkins would not have been the impetus for progress but for the defining tragedy of the Triangle Fire.

Ten days after the fire, 300,000 New Yorkers stood in the rain to watch the funeral procession that took hours to pass. In the end, all but six bodies were identified. The unknowns were interred in a mass grave on the border of Brooklyn and Queens. Fighting for $15 is a way of honoring the victims, known and unknown, of that terrible fire and recommitting to the idea that all those who work deserve the dignity of a living wage.