Honoring the Key Bridge workers


Last month marked the 123rd anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, one of the worst industrial accidents in U.S. history. One hundred forty-six workers died, many of them young immigrant women from southern and eastern Europe who leaped to their deaths attempting to escape the burning garment factory in New York City. Although Triangle’s owners were acquitted of criminal charges, the incident prompted reforms to protect worker safety, and it forced the nation to think more seriously about its treatment of the working class.

I thought of the Triangle fire as I learned about the workers who died when the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapsed March 26 in Baltimore. Like many of the Triangle victims, the six workers who lost their lives when a ship collided with the bridge — Miguel Luna, Alejandro Hernandez Fuentes, Maynor Yassir Suazo Sandoval, Dorlian Ronial Castillo Cabrera, Jose Mynor Lopez, and Carlos Hernandez — were immigrants.  They came to the United States from Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico, and Guatemala. Like so many immigrants throughout our history, they were doing work essential to our security and safety. As U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg observed, “These were workers who went out on a night shift repairing the road surface while most of us slept.”

The bridge collapse has highlighted the fact that immigrants often work in hazardous occupations, with construction jobs ranking among the most dangerous. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, construction had the most workplace deaths of any industry in 2021, with 274 foreign-born Hispanic workers accounting for 27% of these fatalities. And immigrant workers, especially if they are undocumented or not represented by unions, can be especially vulnerable to workplace mistreatment or exploitation.  

Notably, the firm doing the Key Bridge work was non-union. As AFSCME Council 3 President Patrick Moran noted in a recent Salon article, the state of Maryland has often employed non-union contractors for road repair projects, and “worker safety is just not in their matrix.”

It is important to remember those who lost their lives on March 26. Too often, immigrants are portrayed negatively or even demonized in our political discourse. The men who died on the Key Bridge present another image of immigrants, one that we saw during the pandemic when the essential work they performed gained widespread recognition. Like so many immigrants, they were fathers and husbands, family men, homeowners, churchgoers, and engaged community members. They “came to this country to accomplish their dreams,” Sandoval’s brother declared.

In a recent New York Times interview, Panagis Galiatsatos, a Baltimore doctor and the son of immigrant parents, said working on Key Bridge “was one of the first jobs available” for many Baltimore immigrants. “It was a bridge to the American Dream,” he recalled. “And the first and last hands touching that bridge were immigrants that came here to pursue that.”

Perhaps we can best honor Miguel Luna, Alejandro Hernandez Fuentes, Maynor Yassir Suazo Sandoval, Dorlian Ronial Castillo Cabrera, Jose Mynor Lopez, and Carlos Hernandez by pledging to build bridges rather than walls in our unions and our communities. It would be a fitting tribute to their lives and a welcome show of solidarity at a time when support for immigrants is urgently needed.


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