Like nails on a chalkboard: How hard-fought labor reforms have been lost

May 18, 2015
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Credit: Creative Commons

After the New York Times ran a searing two-part investigation into the exploitation and job-related health problems of the state’s nail-salon workers earlier this month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered emergency measures to protect them and appointed a special review panel to recommend long-term reforms. The Times series painted a portrait of an immigrant workforce laboring in dangerous conditions and for pitiful wages — in some cases paying salon owners for the opportunity to make $10, or less, a day.

Nail salons, a growth industry across the nation, appear to be little more than brightly lighted sweatshops, according to the series, throwbacks to a time when immigrants, especially immigrant women, worked long hours for low pay in unsafe, unsanitary conditions.

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Women in sweatshop at 87 Ridge Street, New York City. Small girl is is Mamie Gerhino, about 14 years old, February 21, 1908. Courtsey of Library of Congress

In the early 20th century, capital pretty much operated as it saw fit. From the slaughterhouses of Chicago, which inspired Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, to the garment factories of New York, factory owners had no need to answer to regulators or inspectors. There were no protections for workers who suffered job injuries, no safety net for families when the breadwinner lost a job. Those who raised objections to the status quo were liable to find themselves without a job or on the wrong end of a police officer’s truncheon.

But conditions began to change with the rise of progressive politicians like Theodore Roosevelt and the growing force of labor unions and social reform movements. Many of these crucial reforms originated in New York, which became a progressive leader in workplace safety and social welfare reform. The state passed laws that set the standard for later federal rulings. The Times series, however, read as if a century of labor improvements had been lost.

Some salon workers were found to be suffering from health ailments that could be related to chemicals they use — just as textile workers in the early 20th century developed illness from the dust and fibers they inhaled on the factory floor.

New York in the early 20th century was home to a rising generation of workers and advocates ready to challenge the laissez-faire dogma of the previous century. The Women’s Trade Union League, a fledgling organization, agitated on behalf of the immigrant women garment workers. In 1909, the union organized a general strike against hundreds of garment factories. Thousands of young women, many of them Jewish and Italian immigrants or the children of immigrants, walked picket lines. Though the strike eventually ran out of steam, the women had made their point. The old way of doing business was over.

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Credit: MATT MAHURIN

But the critical turning point was two years later. On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, on the upper floors of a Greenwich Village building. The  workers, largely young immigrant women, sought to flee the inferno, but the owners had locked the doors. There were no fire extinguishers, no sprinklers. A crowd had gathered below and they watched as some of the women jumped to their deaths. When it was over, 146 workers had died.

The Triangle fire ignited mass demonstrations and demands for not only increased workplace regulations, but also for a broader reordering of the relationship between government and the marketplace. After a four-year investigation, a special state commission produced four massive reports that laid the groundwork for the modern regulatory state. The reports created a template for many federal rules passed during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

The commission went well beyond calls for stricter safety measures. The New York Legislature eventually passed measures limiting the work week to 54 hours for women and children, mandating a minimum daily wage of $2 for workers on the state’s canals and requiring employers to grant workers a day off for every seven worked. These and other laws set off a larger debate in New York that led to passage of a new workers’ compensation law and a state-mandated minimum wage.

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Frances Perkins. WIKIPEDIA/Commons.

Frances Perkins, who served on the commission, went on to become Franklin Roosevelt’s labor secretary — and the first woman cabinet member. If she were alive today, she would likely wonder if the commission’s work was in vain. For she surely would see in the lives of New York’s nail-salon workers the same injustices she and her commission colleagues sought to remediate a century ago.

The salon workers, the vast majority of them Korean immigrants, are tethered to the workplace, working 12 hours a day, six and even seven days a week. New York legislators and activists who supported workplace reforms after the Triangle fire thought they were regulating away such gross exploitation.

Perkins, a social worker trained in the settlement-house tradition of the early 20th century, made sure that the politicians on the commission saw first-hand the conditions under which industrial workers — including children younger than 10 — labored. The panel’s two legislative leaders were state Senator Robert Wagner, who became a U.S. senator and a champion of the New Deal, and Assemblyman Alfred E. Smith, who became a four-term New York governor and the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee in 1928.

Both Wagner and Smith were products of the sidewalks of New York. But even they had been shocked by the working conditions they saw, including tenement apartments where women and girls did piecework for scandalously low wages and without any safety protections. The New York Times reported at the time “the eating of meals in rooms filled with poisonous dust and gases was found to be a custom” in many factories. The New York Times reported earlier this month that “some of the chemicals in nail products are known to cause cancer; others have been linked to abnormal fetal development, miscarriages and other harm to reproductive health.”

Perkins insisted that Wagner, a German immigrant raised in Manhattan’s Yorkville neighborhood, saw for himself what passed as a fire escape in one factory: an ice-covered ladder, accessible through a hole in the wall and 12-feet too short. The lawmakers saw factory floors where children worked until they passed out or where workers put in 12-hour shifts seven days a week.

The plight of the New York manicurists as described in the Times is a serious problem, but perhaps especially so because they work in a state that had set the standards for workplace safety a century ago. In announcing his emergency measures, Cuomo noted, “New York State has a long history of confronting wage theft and unfair labor practices head-on, and today … we are aggressively following in that tradition.” He promised the state would “not stand idly by as workers are … robbed of their most basic rights.”

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Sweatshop at 30 Suffolk St. New York, New York . Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Those are fine sentiments, and the governor is right to cite New York’s record as an advocate for workers, particularly immigrant workers who often have no recourse when their wages aren’t paid or they are forced to work in unsafe conditions.

Yet the question remains: How in a state with a long history of worker protection did it come to this?

Which leads to a second question: How many other services that rely on immigrants are routinely exploiting workers, often in plain sight?

Perhaps somebody can persuade Cuomo and his colleagues to follow in the footsteps of Perkins and investigate exploitation and injustice for themselves.

If they do, they should watch their step. It’s dangerous out there.

3 comments

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I’ve seen several of those workers in several places of business. The owners that adversely employ those workers, …I hold little if any respect for them. There is a place called HELL.

Posted by T.L. | Report as abusive

So how many stylish Americans are willing to pay enough for their manicures and pedicures that these workers even take home the “prevailing” statutory minimum wage?

When the price doubles, the demand for such services drops by 50%. Who, precisely, does that help? And, T.L. no there isn’t. As Walt Kelly, cartoonist, said many years ago in his “Pogo” strip: “We has met the enemy and he is us.”

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Better solution: don’t let any immigrants in. That will make wages for Americans go up faster than any BS liberal program.

Posted by LetBalanceCome | Report as abusive