Workers Demand a Better Normal

By Celeste Monforton and Jane M. Von Bergen

Celeste Monforton and Jane M. Von Bergen are the authors of On the Job: The Untold Story of Work Centers and the New Fight for Wages, Dignity, and Health, out this May from The New Press

All around the country, community-labor organizations called worker centers are pushing back against returning to normal.

Headline from The New York World, March 26 1911

It’s normal, day laborers say, to repair a roof without the boss providing a safety harness. People don’t usually fall. It’s normal for restaurant workers to slip on wet floors when well-placed rubber mats would solve the problem. It’s normal to work for hours in the sun without a break in some shade. People don’t usually die from heat stroke.

That’s just the job. Normal.

One hundred and ten years ago, young immigrant women went to work in a shirtwaist factory in Lower Manhattan. For their bosses, it was a normal practice to lock exit doors to prevent theft, especially considering these women earlier had the audacity to try to unionize. Normal. After all, pilfering can’t be tolerated, nor can workers trying to claim their power.

But one hundred and ten years ago, on March 25, 1911, those “normal” locked doors at the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. cost 145 of those workers their lives.

A dropped match ignited a fire. The women rushed to exits on the eighth and ninth floors to escape, but doors were locked. Desperate, some leapt from the factory’s windows. They fell to the streets below, bodies and clothes aflame.

And suddenly, in the streets of New York, what had been normal was no longer acceptable.

Tens of thousands- one in ten New Yorkers- gathered at a funeral protest for the young women who died. They were Italians, Jews, Russians, Irish. They were united and furious. They vowed, in passionate speeches, that workers would never again be treated so callously, locked in to die.

They promised a new normal.

There were reforms, but the old normal soon returned. Since then, hundreds of thousands of workers have died in mines, on construction sites, in factories, in stores and on highways. In 1991, 25 poultry plant workers in Hamlet, North Carolina died when a fire broke out. Fire doors had been locked.

Those “normal” locked doors at the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. cost 145 of those workers their lives.

We’re hearing more and more about a post-pandemic new normal. But unless we, as a nation, take stronger actions to protect workers, the new normal won’t be different from the old one, with the most vulnerable workers still at the most risk of injury and death.

In 2019, 5,333 workers died at work. That same year, 1,088 Hispanic and Latino workers lost their lives — the highest number among this group since 1992, according to the U.S. Labor Department. Many were vulnerable, low-wage workers.

The COVID devastation wasn’t part of that report, but it will be brutal. As of February, more than 50,000 meat production workers contracted COVID-19 and more than 250 have died of it, according to ProPublica, an investigative journalism publication. Many poultry and meat processing workers are immigrants and refugees.

They were among those who were sickened and died in January at Foundation Food Group’s poultry plant in Gainesville, Georgia. Six workers were asphyxiated by the nitrogen gas used to flash freeze chicken.

At a Zoom ceremony held last year in memory of workers killed on the job, rising Newark, N.J. politician Victor Monterrosa Jr. addressed that exact issue. People hope life will return to normal, but “we cannot return to normal,” he said. If so, it will be a “return to all the same problems we had. We cannot go back to that.”

As of February, more than 50,000 meat production workers contracted COVID-19 and more than 250 have died of it.

There is hope. So far, the Biden administration h.as appointed Jim Frederick and Chip Hughes as top officials at OSHA– people with exceptional track records advocating for worker safety. Congress is opening an investigation into the COVID-19 outbreaks linked to meat and poultry plants. Unions will have more influence over worker safety policy.

But the real hope comes from workers themselves — day laborers, housekeepers, temp workers at factories, warehouses and construction sites. All around the country, community-labor organizations called worker centers are pushing back against returning to normal.

Meeting in church basements and storefronts, workers who might not otherwise have a voice because of immigration status, language barriers, or murky employment situations are confronting wage theft, harassment, and now, more than ever, worker safety and health.

Hope comes from people like Nora Morales, who helped workers demand bathroom breaks at a Texas poultry processing plant through the Centro de Derechos Laborales, a worker center headquartered in a former beauty shop. “What affected me the most,” she said, “was realizing that your dignity as a person is being stepped on in such a way that people are abused so much that they start seeing it as normal.”

In Houston, Mirella Nava, a temp worker increasingly concerned about unsafe conditions at her workplace, turned to Fe y Justicia. At this Houston worker center, Nava and her fellow workers used bright-colored markers on chart paper to map hazards inside the insulation factory where they worked. They diagrammed cutting machines without safety guards, electrical hazards, and forklift problems.

“­They pointed out all these hazards to us that had previously seemed like normal, everyday things,” Nava explained.

But the real hope comes from workers themselves — day laborers, housekeepers, temp workers at factories, warehouses and construction sites.

This kind of unsafe, disrespectful normal cannot be tolerated — not for our most vulnerable workers, not for us as a society.

We’ve seen what happens when callous normal goes unchallenged. It’s not something that happens only to outsiders, to people earning the lowest wages and working the worst jobs. In January when they were certifying the election results, members of Congress experienced what it is like to go to work and wonder whether they will make it home.

Monterrosa made his remarks about the “new normal” last April at an annual workers’ memorial ceremony organized by New Labor, a New Jersey worker center.

He asked: Will the new normal mean that workers still struggle with wage theft, isolation, harassment, and disrespect, unable to get sick pay to care for themselves or a family member?

No one needs that “normal,” he said. “We are going to get ourselves out of this crisis and improve conditions for our workers on the job.”

Justice, respect, safety. That’s what the women at the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. wanted 110 years ago. It’s what workers want today. Worker centers and their worker members can show all of us the way to a new — and better — normal.

***

Occupational health expert Celeste Monforton and prizewinning journalist Jane M. Von Bergen are the authors of the forthcoming book, On the Job: The Untold Story of Work Centers and the New Fight for Wages, Dignity, and Health, published by New Press.

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