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Gender in History of Labor Unions

Key Points

  • Women have always played an important role in the labor movement
  • But male workers have often used unions to exclude women
Women were among the first workers to bear the hardships of the industrial revolution, and among the first to unionize. They have participated in the labor movement in both a lead and supportive role through its entire history, but the movement has not always been friendly in return. Here are just a few of the highlights of women's role in the labor movement.

Women in the Early Labor Movement

  • First industrial factory workers were girls
  • Women textile workers formed unions before the Civil War
  • International Ladies Garment Workers Union organized women workers in early 20th century, became powerful organization
  • 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire killed 146 women, shocked the nation
When young women were hired to tend the power looms of New England's early factories, they became some of the earliest workers exposed to the rigors of the industrial workplace. As early as the 1830s, women who worked in the textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, took action to protest their arduous working conditions and low wages.

Mill girls started their days at 5:00 a.m. and finished at 7:00 p.m., putting in regular 14-hour shifts. The noise and heat were often intolerable. Pay cuts in 1834 prompted the girls to walk out, a strike that gained national attention. More than just wages, the workers were affronted by the "purse-proud insolence" of employers and invoked the spirit of the American Revolution in claiming their rights.40 In 1846, the workers formed the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association in order to press for a ten-hour day.

The tradition of women's involvement in the labor movement continued. In 1900 women in New York organized the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). The industry was hard to unionize because many workers were isolated in tenement sweatshops. But in 1909 workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City walked out to protest the firing of union members. The walkout ignited frustration across the shirtwaist industry (a shirtwaist was a type of dress). Company brutality against picketers was met by a mass strike of 20,000 workers, mostly young Jewish and Italian immigrant women, in the garment industry. An arbitrated settlement proved a partial victory for the ILGWU, but the three-month strike, known as the "Uprising of the Twenty Thousand," energized the union movement.

Two years later a fire broke out at that same Triangle factory. At least one of the exit doors was locked, and some of the fire escapes were inaccessible. As a result, many women were trapped. Some burned to death. Others leaped from the ninth floor, in some cases holding hands with a friend or sister as they fell to their deaths. In all, 146 young women died. The 1911 tragedy shocked the country. To many Americans, it laid bare the greed and excesses of industrial capitalism and made clear the need for the reforms unions were calling for.

Mother Jones: Labor Crusader

  • Mother Jones was one of the country's most important labor leaders
  • Supported unions, not suffrage movement
Mary Harris Jones was a nineteenth-century Chicago seamstress who converted her resentment of the uneven distribution of wealth in society into a lifetime of activism on behalf of labor unions. Beginning in the 1870s, Jones traveled to support hundreds of strikes across the country. Vowing to go "wherever there is a fight," she called herself "Mother" and took up the cause of workers in the railroad, textile, and mining industries. "I'm not a humanitarian," she declared, "I'm a hell-raiser."41

Jones had little patience with the concerns of upper class women. "The plutocrats have organized their women," she scoffed. "They keep them busy with suffrage and prohibition and charity."42 She was not an advocate of women's right to vote, fearing that the effort to gain suffrage would divert energy from the labor movement.

Mother Jones was especially active in mining strikes. In 1899 she encouraged coal miners' wives to take up brooms and mops to harass strikebreakers. She became involved with the Industrial Workers of the World. In 1903 she led a march of seriously exploited mill children from Philadelphia to President Teddy Roosevelt's vacation home on Long Island. Though the President refused to see her, she garnered plenty of publicity. At one speech she pointed to a ten-year-old boy stooped from hard factory work for which he received $3 a week and proclaimed, "Here's a text book on economics."43

Carrying on the campaign for labor fairness well into her eighties, Mother Jones became the most famous woman of the labor movement. She was mourned by thousands when she died in 1930.

Unions Fail Women Workers

  • Unions often used power to exclude women from workplace
In spite of women's early involvement in labor struggles, deeply ingrained prejudices against women taking a full role in the workplace were often reinforced by labor unions themselves. Women were seen as mere auxiliaries to the movement, or worse, as threats to men's jobs.

For example, in 1941 workers at Kelsey-Hays Wheel Corporation went on strike to demand "the removal of all girl employees from machine work."44 Around the same time, the United Auto Workers opposed training any women until all unemployed men had work.

As a result, women continued to suffer discrimination in the workplace. During the1930s banks, schools and some federal agencies routinely fired women employees if they became pregnant. Many unions went along with this chauvinist attitude, banning women from jobs as bus drivers, typesetters, or assembly line workers.

The Drive for Equal Pay

  • In recent decades, unions have fought to win equal pay for women workers
Eventually, union leaders saw that they could reduce the threat of companies hiring women to do jobs for less money by fighting for equal pay rather than against women on the job. Unions supported the federal Equal Pay Act of 1963, which dictated equal pay for equal work regardless of the gender of the worker.

Women continued to receive significantly lower pay overall than men. In 1979 labor unions were among the major sponsor of the National Committee on Pay Equity to lobby for legislation. In the 1980s, the labor movement used strikes and negotiations to win pay equity between men and women. As one of his first acts after taking office, President Obama signed a new equal pay law giving victims of discrimination a longer time to file claims.

Women's path toward justice in the workplace has been more difficult than that of their fellow workers who are men. Though their wages after inflation have risen 24% since 1979, they still remain below those of men. But just as women were determined to stand up for their rights in the earliest factories, they continue to organize. In 1974 they formed the Coalition of Labor Union Women to put a focus on women's unique problems. Their motto: "We did not come here to swap recipes."45

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