Long before I knew I was a feminist, I was a worker’s rights activist. Somewhere in the depths of my house, there is a picture of me, nine years old, in a IBEW tee shirt that came down to my knees, marching in support of strike workers at the Detroit News and Free Press. In my private middle school full of miniature privilege blind Republicans, I stood up in class to defend the UAW, when one boy said all they do is take breaks.* And sometime around 13 years old, my dad gave me a copy of Laurie Anderson’s Strange Angels, and as I listened to “Beautiful Red Dress,” it clicked in my head that trade unions were particularly important to me as a woman because they were pretty much the only job market where I would be granted equal pay. I also knew I was in good company, because some of the biggest badasses of American history were the women who got folks organized. In honor of Labor Day, let’s remember a few.
Sara Bagley and the Lowell Mill Girls
The textile mills at Lowell Massachusetts were not a particularly pleasant place to work. They recruited young women from the surrounding farms with the idea that they would work for a few years before marriage. They slept six or ten to a room, worked eleven to thirteen hour days, were often expected to tend to multiple looms, and everything was overheated with poor air circulation. Between 1842 and 1844, increasing economic depression lead to the mills demanding more of their workers and cutting their pay. At the end of 1844, however, with the economy perking back up the mills raised men’s, but not women’s wages back to the 1842 levels. This lead to Sara Bagley and a few others joining together to form the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association, of which Bagley was president. They petitioned the government of Massachusetts to regulate a ten hour work day. From one of her letters, she writes about the paper she helped write and publish:
But the “Factory Tracts” it is for those to decide whether they shall be published, who are not willing to see our sex, made into living machines to do the bidding of incorporated aristocrats and reduced to a sum for their services hardly sufficient to keep soul and body together.
In the end, while she managed to bring about the first government inspection of labor conditions in US history, the ruling was made that the government did not have the authority to mandate the length of the work day. However, the outrage against the mills became so intense that in 1847, they shortened the work day by thirty minutes and in 1853, they shortened it again to eleven hours. As a side note, she was also likely the first female telegraph operator in the United States.
Mother Jones (Yes, the one they named the magazine after)
Mary Harris Jones did not have an easy life. She lost her husband and all four of her children in a yellow fever epidemic, then just a few years later, her home and shop burned down in the Great Chicago Fire. Following that, she joined up with the Knights of Labor (an early incarnation of the IWW a.k.a. the “Wobblies”) and when they dissolved, she was primarily associated with the United Mine Workers. In 1902, at her trial for ignoring an injunction against the meeting of striking miners, she was given the completely badass title of “Most Dangerous Woman in America.” Perhaps one of her most famous protests was the “Children’s Crusade” wherein she organized children who worked in mines to march from Philadelphia to Oyster Bay, New York where President Theodore Roosevelt lived. This came on the heels of her failure to get the newspapers to publish anything about the conditions the children worked in because the mines were major stockholders in the papers. Throughout her life, the cause of child labor would continue to be a particular concern. From her autobiography:
In many mines I met the trapper boys. Little chaps who open the door for the mule when it comes in for the coal and who close the door after the mule has gone out. Runners and helpers about the mine. Lads who will become miners; who will never know anything of this beautiful world, of the great wide sea, of the clean prairies, of the snow capped mountains of the vast West. Lads born in the coal, reared and buried in the coal. And his one hope, his one protection — the union.
While her track record on women’ rights seems a little off-course (she opposed women’s suffrage), she was one hell of an agitator and organized labor supporter.
Rose Schneiderman, a Polish immigrant, and women’s factory work organizer stood before the well to do members of the Women’s Trade Union League on April 2, 1911 at a meeting in memoriam of the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and said the following:
I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting.
She was a powerful speaker and organizer for the women who worked in textile factories and a notable fighter for women’s suffrage. She coined the term “Bread and Roses” for the 1912 textile strike in Lawrence Massachusetts. She argued that it was not enough to simply have enough to eat, workers deserved dignity. And because she was such a beautiful speaker, I think I’ll give you another one of her quotes:
It seems to me that the working women ought to wake up to the truth of the situation; all this talk about women’s charm does not mean working women. Working women are expected to work and produce their kind so that they, too, may work until they die of some industrial disease.
We hear our anti-suffragettes saying, “Why, when you get the vote it will hinder you from doing welfare work, doing uplift work.” Who are they going to uplift? Is it you and I they want to uplift? I think if they would lift themselves off our shoulders they would be doing a better bit of useful work. I think you know by now that if the workers got what they earn there would be no need of uplift work and welfare work or anything of that kind.
Dolores Huerta is the cofounder and Secretary Treasurer of the United Farm Workers of America. She worked alongside Cesar Chavez to secure rights for California’s farm workers. In 1966, she negotiated the first ever collective bargaining agreement in the United States between a group of farmworkers and an agricultural corporation. It was part of the Delano Grape Strike, and over the five years of the strike she would continue to aid workers in negotiating contracts and settling grievances. Her organizing and lobbying efforts were also instrumental in bringing forth the Agricultural Labor Relations Act and the Immigration Act of 1985. She’s also the Vice-President of the Coalition for Labor Union Women, the Vice-President of the California AFL-CIO, and is a board member of The Feminist Majority.
And this is just a small sample of the awesome women who have fought for the rights of workers. Hat’s off to you ladies, to all you Union Maids who never were afraid of the goons and the ginks and the company finks.
* In a factory you cannot leave your post until the line stops. Wanna smoke? Tough. Wanna coffee? Tough. Wanna pee? Tough. So, yea, they get a little serious about break times.
Editor’s note: Original version of this article said “However, the outrage against the mills became so intense that in 1947, they shortened the work day by thirty minutes and in 1853, they shortened it again to eleven hours.” The date has been changed to 1847.