9 Women Who Fought For The Right To Work You Should Know About This Labor Day
Labor Day is celebrated each September to honor the working people of America — not, as many think, to mourn the end of summer. Labor Day is an opportunity to look at how far labor rights in the U.S. have come, thanks to the work of activists, unionists, strikers, and people who just couldn't keep quiet about injustice in their workplace. And if you know your history, you'll realize that women have played a huge role in making the U.S. a safer, more equitable place to have a job, whether they've been out on picket lines or getting laws passed to protect workers' rights.
The fight isn't over yet. The gender pay gap still exists. Women remain in need of paid parental leave; the U.S. is one of the rare wealthy countries not to provide it to their citizens by federal law. Executive orders that protected fair pay by federal contractors have been scrapped by the Trump White House, and other reforms protecting workers' rights may be under threat. So now is the time to be inspired by these firebrands of the past who fought for your right to work safely, get paid well and do what you love without anybody else stoping you. This Labor Day, it's time to look at the past to be motivated for the future.
Josephine Lowell, a lifelong activist for women's rights at work, partnered with famous social reformer Jane Addams in 1890 to found the National Consumer's League, an organization devoted to improving the conditions and lives of women working across the U.S., particularly in retail. They published a famous White List in newspapers which detailed stores in New York that treated their female workers well; the initial list had only eight names on it.
Lucy Parsons was a labor organizer and anarchist who founded the International Working People’s Association in 1883 with her husband Albert Parsons. She wrote many articles about the necessity of striking and direct action and travelled the world advocating workers' rights. She's most known today for her involvement in the Haymarket Affair in 1886 in Chicago, a strike that turned violent when a bomb was thrown, but served as the groundwork for our observance of International Workers' Day on May 1.
3Ella Reeve “Mother” Bloor
You've likely heard of Mother Jones, but another "Mother" to the American labor movement was Ella Reeve. She was a feminist, a reformer, and an advocate for worker's rights, helping Upton Sinclair document the terrible conditions in cattleyards for his book The Jungle by working under the assumed name "Mrs. Richard Bloor" to gather information. A lifelong socialist, she'd also be the first woman in the U.S. to run for state office and would be arrested hundreds of times.
Leonora O'Reilly was one of the founders of the Women's Trade Union League in 1903, one of the most powerful organizations in American history for the rights of women in the workplace. She worked in a collar factory from the age of 11, and was an amazing speaker about worker's issues, with one newspaper reporting: "No sooner did she begin to speak when her voice, her face, her very personality, told of a sincerity that won admiration. She gained the audience with the beginning of her first sentence."
Rosina Tucker, whose parents were formerly enslaved people, was a key figure in the founding of the first African-American workers' union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Her husband was a porter on a train, and when the union was formed, she operated as a secret liaison, traveling between the homes of members to collect their dues. She'd go on to become a prominent labor organizer and a vital member of the Civil Rights Movement, helping the activist A. Phillip Randolph organize the 1963 March on Washington.
One of the most remarkable strikes in American history, the uprising of garment workers in New York in 1909, happened because of female unionist and Jewish immigrant Clara Lemlich. When male union members were unwilling to strike, Lemlich is recorded as saying, “I have listened to all the speakers, and I have no further patience for talk. I am a working girl, one of those striking against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in generalities. What we are here for is to decide whether or not to strike. I make a motion that we go out in a general strike." The speech set off a wave of strikes which were about 70 percent female, and Lemlich became an important figure in the labor movement, the fight for suffrage, and in helping people survive the Great Depression.
Luisa Moreno had left behind her wealthy Guatemalan family to come to the U.S. in 1928 and found the passion of her life: the cause of labor rights. She became an organizer for the American Federation of Labor as an organizer in 1935, and rapidly rose to be one of the most important labor activists in America, helping to organize workers at plants, factories and farms across the U.S. She was deported to Guatemala in 1950 for her Communist beliefs.
"Over the last 10 years, when organized labor has been suffering setbacks across the country, Hattie Canty's union (she is president of Local 226) which represents hotel workers — cocktail waitresses, dishwashers, fry cooks, maids and so forth — in nearly all of Las Vegas's major casino hotels, has more than doubled its membership," wrote the New Yorker in 1996. Canty took a job as a maid to support her children in 1975, joined the union, became its president in 1990, and would lead the longest strike in US history, lasting six years, four months and 10 days.
May Chen helped organize the giant 1982 garment workers' strikes in New York's Chinatown, in which 20,000 Asian-American workers lined the streets demanding better working conditions, according to United Food and Commercial Workers. She joined the International Ladies Garment Workers' Union, helping many of its members apply for American citizenship, and became one of America's most prominent Asian labor organizers, rounding out her career as vice president of organization UNITE HERE.
Women have a long history of fighting for workers' rights in this country and across the world. This Labor Day, remember the women who have fought for our rights to safe and equitable working conditions.