March 28, 2017
By Joe Maniscalco
New York, NY - Back in 1911, the bodies of poor immigrant workers killed in the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire were piled up on the sidewalk outside the old Asch Building at Greene Street and Washington Place in a ghastly makeshift morgue. Flash forward to today, and the bodies of immigrant construction workers overwhelming killed on non-union job sites throughout the city since 2015, have not been quite so visible. But the callous disregard for all of their lives — garment workers and construction workers alike — remains just about the same.
Edgar Melendez, a striking construction worker who walked off his W. 57th Street job site last June, citing persistent safety concerns, told those gathered for this year’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire memorial held on March 24, that poorly-paid workers like himself are still fighting for workplace protections and respect.
“They just threw me, and other workers, out to the job site, and told us to get the job done,” Melendez said.
Instead of the gold standard of apprentice training that union construction workers get — and new legislation now before the New York City Council would also require of all constuction workers — Melendez said that he was expected to pick things up as he went along.
“I was hired as a welder, but I did everything from singling tower cranes to rigging,” the striking U.S. Crane & Rigging worker said. “When I was hired to the company, I didn’t know anything about signaling tower cranes or rigging. They told me I would learn as I went…When I didn’t know the signals from not being trained, I was reprimanded and yelled at.”
But at least he wasn’t killed or maimed.
In April, 2015, 22-year-old Ecuadorian immigrant Carlos Moncayo was buried alive on a Manhattan construction site in the Meatpacking District after the trench he was working in collapsed. A judge later found Harco Construction Corp. guilty of manslaughter.
Safety advocates warn that if Intro. 1447 — the bill requiring apprentice training on at least some New York City construction projects — is not codified into law, more construction workers like Moncayo will not be coming home at the end of the day.
“Can you imagine that there are contractors and developers in the City of New York in 2017 that oppose their workers being training in safety? It’s unimaginable,” Building and Construction Trades Council leader Gary LaBarbera said. “But why do they oppose this, my brothers and sisters? One simple reason: profits over people.”
It took just 18 minutes for the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire to consume the lives of 146 garment workers — most of them poor immigrant women and girls.
“The first time I came down here, I was shocked that the building survived,” New York State Commissioner of Labor Roberta Reardon said. “They saved the real estate, but it was the workers who died here.”
Another striking construction worker, this one hired as a site safety consultant for FJM Fero, said that injured workers employed by the company were routinely “swept under the rug” and that he was instructed to keep dangerous instances of poor ventilation and faulty equipment quiet.
“I’ve been to too many funerals of immigrants who were not properly trained on these sites,” Public Advocate Letitia James said. “Have we not learned anything from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire tragedy?
Melendez said that Intro. 1447 needs to become law, so that construction workers like him can feel safe on New York City job sites.
“Too many workers are dying, and these deaths can be prevented,” Melendez said. “Just like the deaths that could have been prevented 106 years ago. We need to be better, and stick up for our workers and keep them safe.”
As many as 36 new pieces of legislation aimed at averting another similar disaster were enacted statewide, in the immediate aftermath of the deadly 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.
“As we remember 106 years ago, let’s also remember yesterday, today, a month ago, a year ago, and two years ago, because workers are still being killed on job sites,” LaBarbera added. “Workers are still dying in factories. There is no excuse for this. These deaths, just like in this [Triangle Shirtwaist] tragedy, are all preventable.”
On Friday, in front of the old building at Greene Street and Washington Place, ghostly banners cut into the shapes of old-fashioned shirtwaists and bearing the names of the immigrant women killed in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory blaze, gently billowed in the chilly late-March air. One-hundred-and-six years ago, those shirtwaists were real, and filled with flesh and bone people. All of them doomed.