This story was originally written for El Diario/La Prensa. Translation by Sarah Kate Kramer.
NEW YORK—Workers, union organizers and public officials acknowledged Friday that although much progress has been made with respect to labor rights, there are still thousands of immigrants who are abused every day in their jobs.
They spoke at a ceremony to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, a tragedy which killed 146 garment workers who were trapped inside a burning building. Most of those who died were young Italian and Jewish immigrant women. The devastating incident became a rallying cry for workers to fight for unionization.
“I see that a hundred years since this terrible accident that killed so many people, things have really not changed at all,” said Walfre Merida, a member of Local 79, from the stage.
Listen to Walfre Merida:
Merida, 25, said before joining the union he worked at a construction company where he was not paid overtime, had no benefits and was paid in cash.
“Safety conditions, none. Grab your tool and go to work, no more. And do not stop,” he told El Diario/La Prensa. “When we worked in high places, on roofs, we never used harnesses, one became accustomed to the dangers and thanked God we weren’t afraid of heights. One would risk his life out of necessity.”
Hilda Solis, the U.S. Secretary of Labor, said the police department will ensure compliance with labor laws because “we must always protect our most vulnerable workers.”
Solis and other speakers attacked the Republican governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, who pushed legislation that eliminates collective bargaining for public employees. The legislation is temporarily being blocked by a judge.
“Today we pay tribute to workers in communities across this great country who are strongly protesting actions that seek to quiet them and their right to collectively bargain, the right to have a voice in their workplaces. We applaud them,” said Solis.
Senator Charles Schumer said unions and collective bargaining “have saved millions of workers from accidents and death” and that the extreme right wants to remove the rights for which workers have struggled and “turn back our nation to 1911.”
Mayor Michael Bloomberg was booed during his speech while many workers shouted “tax the rich!”
Eduardo Diaz, a construction worker, said the union gives important training about worker rights and safety.
“The construction sector has the most deaths. Many workers do not go through this training. Many builders do not use union workers, pay less than minimum wage and do not give workers protection,” said Diaz, 63.
Video produced by El Diario/La Prensa.
Alberto Aguilar, 37, who has been in Local 79 for three years, explained that many contractors do not allow their employees to join the union so they can pay them less.
“There is a big difference being in the union. They give us benefits, pay us overtime, give us training. Outside of the union, forget about it,” said Aguilar.
The ceremony had touching moments, like when relatives of each of the 146 victims rang a bell and said the name and age of the workers, mostly immigrants between 16 and 23 years old. The family members hoisted banners made in the shape of a shirt with the name of each victim on it.
The director of the New York Immigration Coalition, Chung Wha Hong, told El Diario that while progress has been made, there are still many immigrants outside of unions and many unions who choose the path of exclusion rather than protection.
“The workplace should not be a place of fear—fear of explotation, fear of deportation—it should be a place where you feel you are making a contribution and you can work with dignity. And we are not there yet,” said Hong.
Catalina.jaramillo @ eldiariony.com