New York City Worker Safety Protected By Labor Unions

History of Labor Unions in New York City

New Yorker Samuel Gompers, first president of the American Federation of Labor, called New York City "the cradle of the American labor movement." For example, in New York's first Labor Day parade in 1882, 25,000 workers marched for the abolition of child labor and an eight-hour workday under a Knights of Labor banner. This and other efforts gave New York a reputation as a labor-friendly town.

The 19th century saw some modest progress in worker efforts to improve wages and workplace safety. However the event that really galvanized unions into action and eased their acceptance by the public was the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911. Triangle Shirtwaist Co. management had locked all but one of the fire exits to prevent alleged employee theft. As a result, 146 workers, all of them Jewish or Italian women, were trapped and fatally burned or jumped to their deaths. The tragedy helped New York state to pass 36 new laws to strengthen worker safety in the months and years that followed. It also was a pivotal event in the history of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), the first union to have a primarily female membership.

There are many stirring stories about past efforts to improve the conditions of working people in New York City. What have unions and labor activists accomplished more recently? What is the contribution of the modern union to workplace safety?

Unions were strong advocates for federal labor safety laws, such as the one that authorized the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in 1971. They continue to make their voices heard in New York and throughout the United States about issues related to worker safety and on-the-job hazards. For example:

  • Several building trades unions protested after a worker fell from scaffolding and broke his leg on a non-union job on West 50th Street in Manhattan. (2014)
  • The New York Taxi Workers Alliance provides FREE blood pressure screenings so members can obtain treatment if they are found to have high blood pressure - a condition that could result in on-the-job accidents. (2014)
  • Local 78 of the Asbestos, Lead & Hazardous Waste Workers placed a large inflatable rat in front of a residential building on Manhattan's West End Avenue to protest the safety record of the contractor renovating the structure. (2011)
  • The New York Hotel Trades Council negotiated a contract that guaranteed hotel workers panic buttons they could activate if they felt unsafe while performing housekeeping duties in hotel bedrooms. (2012)
  • Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union publishes health and safety newsletters for members. (ongoing)
  • Local 237 of the Teamsters Union offers a safety and health guide. (ongoing)
  • The United Federation of Teachers offers school safety training for both teachers and administrators. (ongoing)
  • New York construction unions, like the ironworkers, latherers, sandhogs, electricians, painters, carpenters, steamfitters and sheet metal workers continue to fiercely advocate on behalf of worker safety laws like New York's Scaffold Law. (ongoing)

As these few examples show, unions continue to be champions of workplace safety; it is a core value of the labor movement. Health and safety issues have sometimes become contentious during labor contract negotiations. For example, nurses throughout the country have advocated for increased hospital staffing to protect the safety of both patients and union members. It has been an uphill battle for the AFL-CIO and other unions that represent health care workers throughout the United States. However, the labor movement has persevered in the face of often-significant opposition from employers.

Keeping workers safe on the job has been a goal of labor unions since long before the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. It continues today through protests, contract negotiations and member education - activities that improve safety for union and non-union members alike. Union membership continues to decline in the United States; in 2013, the rate of union membership - the number of workers enrolled in unions - was about 11.3 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In contrast, in 1983, 20.1 percent of workers were unionized. Even though there are fewer union members, union efforts to protect the safety of all workers continue to be critical.