While enrolled as an undergraduate student at New York University, I attended many classes in the Main Building, home to the NYU College of Arts and Sciences and affectionately known as “CAS.” Main was connected to Brown Building with its many science laboratories, dingy stairwells and labyrinthine hallways. Today, Main is known as “The Silver Center of Arts and Science.” It is still attached to the Brown Building as steadfastly as its presence clings so persistently to my memory, for a completely different reason.
Indeed, only after graduation did I learn about the devastation that unfolded at that very place March 25, 1911. It was in the Brown Building where the renowned Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire broke out on the top three floors of this 10-story building overlooking Washington Square Park. I was horrified to learn that workers had been locked inside and could not escape from what remains the deadliest industrial fire in New York City history; 146 died. Fortunately, this was a public call for immediate action, which resulted in widespread reforms to improve working conditions and define workers’ rights.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory reminds us all that Labor Day is not just about fair and equal wages and benefits based on merit. It is also about workplace safety. Preventable accidents occur every day and remind us about balancing organizational mission statements with the people who put those into motion through their actions. When compassion and common sense are cast away on the flawed belief that personal well-being and safety undermine productivity, the stage is already set for the next disaster-in-waiting.
Let us remember the recent U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) scandal. Veterans, who were awaiting care, became lost in the system. Managers at VA facilities that reported low wait times for appointments—even though those times did not reflect the reality—collected performance bonuses.
More recently, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil explosion and spill on April 20, 2010 exemplifies what happens when profits trump safety; 11 people died. Last month, BP agreed to pay the largest corporate settlement in American history, totaling over $18 billion.
Labor Day comes to us in less than two weeks. Consider how you will improve safety in your organization’s physical and virtual spaces. This could mean improving security, mopping up a puddle under the water cooler or reminding coworkers to unplug the paper shredder when trying to unjam it. As we all consecrate the legacy of labor relations, seize this day and carry its spirit with you to promote change. An idea means little until we put it to good use.
Labor Day isn’t just another backyard barbecue. Think of Brown Building. Remember the people locked inside of a burning building because bosses wanted them to work without breaks. They obeyed amid the tides of those times. It was an acceptable practice there and elsewhere. Their unwitting sacrifice is a part of why we have Labor Day. It is also why we must celebrate them and reflect upon our own workplaces.
A potent tool exists which has its own place in influencing an organization’s productivity; managers and line workers alike should remember to use it. Our first President George Washington wielded it, too. He even codified it as a certain maxim written into his schoolboy rulebook: “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”
Submitted by Jason Bowns