Women in unions: Itís not just Mother Jones
By Mark Gruenberg 4 March 2007
|WASHINGTON - Though Mary Harris “Mother” Jones is the most famous female organizer in the early years of unions, and an icon for women unionists, she is far from the only prominent female figure in U.S. labor. Nor is she alone: Masses of women joined her.
|Indeed, women unionists produced some of the first big victories for labor. They include better wages and working conditions for textile workers following the great female-led “Bread and Roses” in 1912 in Lawrence, Mass.
And female union clothing workers scored some of their biggest organizing wins in New York in that same decade, both before and after the fatal 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.
“Long before the Lawrence strike, textile workers banded together to protest their low wages and brutal conditions,” said Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Vice President Sol Stetin, introducing a definitive book on “Bread and Roses.”
And mill workers kept organizing and striking, Stetin said: Silk workers in Paterson, N.J., in 1913, textile workers in New Bedford, Mass., in 1928, and in Gastonia, N.C., the next year. And the 1934 400,000-person industry-wide Southern textile strike, which state governors crushed with troops.
What Stetin didn't say is that many, if not a majority, of those union workers were women.
For women in the union movement are, as in the society, often pushed into second-class status. Women now hold high positions in several major U.S. unions. And women are 39 percent of all union members. But few are national union policymakers.
The AFL-CIO has launched a drive to increase the numbers of women and minorities in leadership posts. But women are still too often among the rank and file in the nation's unions--and too few among the leaders. That doesn't stop them.
It particularly didn't stop Mother Jones, who gained fame as the most tenacious, and effective, union organizer in the years before World War I. Even her foes conceded her worth--by locking her up--during the Ludlow, Colo., coal strike of 1914.
That United Mine Workers' strike was ended by the infamous “Ludlow Massacre” of April 20, when women and children literally gave their lives for their union. Colorado Fuel & Iron Company, owned by John D. Rockefeller, got the state National Guard to open fire on the strikers and their families. Eleven children and two of their mothers died.
Mother Jones aside, a notable instance of women's second-class status--and later recognition--in the labor movement came a few years earlier, in New York.
Then-American Federation of Labor President Samuel Gompers gave little support to female workers. His own union, the Cigarmakers, tried in 1901 to get the AFL to oppose employment of women, and machinery, in their trade, after employers used female unorganized workers to break a male cigarmakers' strike in 1877.
But Gompers changed his mind in 1909. That year, 20,000 female garment workers in New York City struck for higher wages, and won. That gave a big boost to the International Ladies Garment Workers Union: It added 50,000 members.
Wins by women
The New York strike “brought to the consciousness of the nation a recognition of” women's “tendency to stand together in the struggle to protect their common interests as wage-earners, the readiness of all classes to approve of trade-union methods on behalf of working women, and the capacity of women as strikers to suffer, to do and to dare in support of their rights,” he said.
Such wins by union women also highlight how many women, union or not, were and are stuck in low-paid, dangerous, jobs.
Women In Industry, by Edith Abbott of the famed Chicago immigrant workers' center, Hull House, reports that in 1900 women were 49 percent of all cotton industry workers: 148,219.
Abbott said another low-paid mostly female workforce--shoe workers in Lynn, Mass.--brought one of the first successful strikes, in 1872. When management tried to cut wages by one-seventh, a strike started in “one or two shoe-stitching shops,” then spread citywide and involved 900 women unanimously voting to walk out and explain why.
“While we utterly ignore the spirit of selfishness and illiberality that prompted the action of our would-be oppressors, we will not hesitate to resist, in a proper manner, unjust encroachments on our rights,” they declared. The women won.
To a great extent, for working women, only the names of the industries have changed. In 1900-1910, it was textiles, shoes, garment-making, apparel, and cigars Now it's home health care, retail, cleaning, food processing and--yes--apparel and textiles.
Stuck in low-wage jobs
Conditions haven't changed. Women are still stuck in sweatshops. They're still stuck in lower-paid jobs--earning only 73 cents for every dollar a man makes--and they still benefit more from unionization, studies show. Union women earn 38 percent more than their non-union sisters.
That has led to strong organizing efforts among women by “9 to 5,” the Service Employees, the Laborers, the United Food and Commercial Workers and other unions that represent low-paid workers.
Union women have also had indirect impact. The pictures of the great UAW sit-down strikes in Detroit in the 1930s clearly show women handing food through the windows of the auto factories to the men sitting down inside. That support was vital.
But that women still are not equal in unions is shown in “Breaking New Ground,” a 2000 survey for the Chicago Women in Trades, founded in 1980 to support women in the construction trades. Women make up only three percent of Building Trades members, the group found.
“On many (construction) sites women's presence and work has little value,” it says. “Tradeswomen find this sexist attitude and accompanying behavior as wearing as sexual harassment. They report negative behavior from belittling remarks and constant checking of their work to threats of physical violence. And 52 percent reported that men have refused to work with them.”
Mark Gruenberg writes for Press Associates, Inc., news service.