How Crystal Eastman Fought for Pioneering Worker Protections

Black white photo of firefighters spraying water at the Triangle building.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Photo courtesy of the Kheel Center.

On March 25, 1911, a deadly fire spread rapidly through the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in lower Manhattan and killed 146 garment workers, most of whom were young, immigrant women who worked long hours for low pay. A day earlier, on March 24, the New York Court of Appeals overturned the first state workers’ compensation law in the United States. The families of the workers killed in the factory lacked the financial protections of strong workers’ compensation system. A young worker advocate named Crystal Eastman would play a critical role in changing these laws and ushering in protections for workers injured or sickened in the workplace.

In 1907, Eastman, a recent law school graduate, arrived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to help study the “conditions of life and labor” for the region’s working class. At the time, Pittsburgh was known as “the workplace of the world” — a center of the glass, iron, steel and other heavy industries. As part of this research, today known as The Pittsburgh Survey, Eastman completed the first comprehensive study of the causes of workplace accidents, as well as their impact on working people and families. Today, The Pittsburgh Survey is regarded as a pioneering triumph of the 20th century progressive reform movement.

Black and white photo of a woman wearing Victorian-era clothes, sitting on a bench.
Crystal Eastman around 1913. Source: Library of Congress

During her research, Eastman documented an astonishing 526 workers killed at work in Pittsburgh in just one year. Furthermore, she found workers, and their families were typically not compensated in any way when injured on the job. Employers rarely pitched in to help those whose ability to earn a living was permanently reduced. As a result, children sometimes left school to help earn money for their family, spouses took up work on top of caring for multiple children, and many families resorted to “extreme economy” by forgoing food and new clothing. Overall, Eastman concluded the situation left victims of work accidents and their communities with “hardship, struggle, and defeat.”

Because of her trailblazing research in Pittsburgh, Governor of New York Charles Evans Hughes appointed Eastman in 1909 to the New York State Commission on Employers’ Liability. Eastman was elected secretary of the Commission and was the only woman to serve on the body. Today, historians believe she was the principal author of the commission’s 1910 report and the resulting legislation, introduced and enacted in New York state in 1910. The inaugural state workers’ compensation law set forth a new framework for better protecting injured and ill workers, and within one year, 23 other states passed similar laws.

Eastman’s framework was truly transformative, as it required employers to share the risk of a workplace accident with workers and their families. No longer would working people bear the entire burden of an accident on the job. In this legal exchange, known today as the “grand bargain” of workers’ compensation, workers gave up most of their rights to sue employers for negligence, but could expect most of their lost wages and medical expenses to be covered by their employer, regardless of fault of the worker.

While the workers’ compensation law Eastman helped write for New York state was overturned the day before the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, public opinion shifted after the tragedy and New York eventually amended its state constitution to finally implement a new workers’ compensation system for workers only two years later. Eastman would go on to play a very prominent role in the women’s equality movement and anti-war activism in the 20th century and help to found the American Civil Liberties Union. Today, Eastman’s legal framework of the “grand bargain” remains a foundation of the workers’ compensation system in the United States and a key protection for workers injured or sickened on the job.


Christopher J. Godfrey is director of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs