The April 4 Time magazine has a piece marking the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, in which 146 died. "The garment workers won safer factories and shorter hours," the piece claims, crediting in part a 1909 strike by "more than 20,000 shirtwaist workers" and, the following year, "an even larger strike by the men of the cloakmakers' union."
I checked the New York state employment statistics and the entire apparel manufacturing workforce in New York state is now down to about 18,000. Sure, higher wages, safer factories, and shorter hours were victories for New York's unionized workers, and I'm certainly not defending the conditions inside the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. But any full accounting of the fire and the reaction to it would properly have to include not only the improved conditions for workers that resulted from bargaining and regulation as a result, but the incentives that those improved conditions created to move apparel manufacturing jobs overseas or to right-to-work states in the South or to replace the jobs by automating them. The result, in part, is that while New York-based apparel manufacturing jobs are safer and pay more, there are a lot less of them.
That may not bother the children and grandchildren of the garment workers of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory era — lots of them are probably went to college and graduate school and are doctors and lawyers and bankers and professors and accountants. But for new generations of immigrants or those without advanced educations, some manufacturing jobs in New York might be a good thing. Not deadly jobs. But at least, jobs. Nor is it entirely clear that conditions in some garment factories in say, communist China are all that much better than they were in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. But in part because there's no free press in China and in part because it's on the other side of the world, it's harder for American consumers to get a handle on factory conditions there than it is to know about conditions in a Manhattan factory like the Triangle Shirtwaist.