The Labor Movement from the Woman’s Perspective

Do you easily recognize these names? Mary Kenny O’Sullivan, Rose Schneiderman, Helen Marot? How about these women, Alice Paul, Carrie Chapman Catt or Elizabeth Cady Stanton? Without these brave women going before us, we would not be where we are today.

Some historical perspective:

Mary Kenny O’Sullivan was from a working class Irish background who became a dressmaker and then worked in a printing and binding factory in Missouri and several binderies in Chicago. She helped organize the Chicago Women’s Bindery Workers’ Union. What year was that? It was before 1892 – yep that’s right 1892. Because of her work in the union, in 1892 she was appointed the first woman general organizer for the American Federation of Labor. That same year she helped form the Union for Industrial Progress to help study factory working conditions. She went on to organize rubber makers, shoe workers, laundry workers and garment workers. (Continued after the flip…)

100 years ago:

“On Saturday, March 25, 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, located on the top three floors of the ten-story Asch Building in Manhattan. Fueled by combustible garments, cloth, and dust, the fire quickly spread.Most of the more than 500 workers there that day were immigrant women, some as young as 12 years old, mostly from Russia, Italy, Germany, or Hungary. Of those present when the fire started, some escaped down elevators, which then stopped working; some escaped to the roof of the next building; some escaped down stairs which then became engulfed in flames. Those who didn’t escape the building sought to escape the fire by moving towards the doors and windows or hiding in small rooms within the factory. More than 60 chose to jump from the windows rather than die in the fire and smoke. Some 24 died falling from a fire escape that collapsed under the weight of the escaping workers.

The fire started about 4:30 p.m. and firefighters had the fire mostly under control by 5:15. In all, 146 people died as a result of the fire — immediately or soon after as a result of their injuries. Thousands watched from the park and surrounding streets and buildings.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire was the most deadly industrial safety incident in New York City, and resulted in public outcry to establish safety and labor reforms”.

The results of this fire brought about changes to municipal, state and federal regulations to ensure better working conditions and worker safety. In addition, it brought about stronger unions in the garment industry to allow for bargaining on safety and working conditions and to lobby for legislative reforms. One of those to lobby and work on the reforms was rose Schneiderman.  Rose Schneiderman an immigrant to America from Russian-Poland, was a labor activist who served as President of the Women’s Trade Union League. Her speech after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire helped mobilize the public to establish better industrial protections for workers. “It is the spirit of trade unionism that is most important, the service of fellowship, the feeling that the hurt of one is the concern of all and that the work of the individual benefits all” (Rose Schneiderman 1905).

Helen Marot, a librarian from a wealth family in Philadelphia, became active in investigating working conditions, particularly among children and women. She joined Women’s Trade Union League, organized the Bookkeepers, Stenographers and Accountants Union in New York and organized and led the 1909 Shirtwaist Strike in New York.

These women were so significant to the labor movement and protecting the rights of workers. If we forget these valiant women, we are apt to take for granted their achievements and assume employers of today are more enlightened in the treatment of their workers. Are they really more enlightened or do they just follow the law? If we allow the laws to be repealed, do we really believe the employers will continue to do the right thing? Some may but with nothing compelling them, who is to say they will do the right thing.

Alice Paul, Carrie Chapman Catt and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were the women of the suffrage movement. They fought and suffered so that women today would have the right to vote. So when I hear women say “oh it doesn’t matter if I voter or not,” I try to remind them – it does mater. It mattered to these women that they were willing to give their lives for the right to be equal citizens.

The women who were organizers in the labor movement were also women of the suffrage movement. Advocating for women to be treated well in the workplace, to change working conditions through the legislative process, meant women had to vote. “What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist — the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art. You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too. Help, you women of privilege, give her the ballot to fight with.” (Rose Schneiderman – 1912, Cleveland)

Now let’s fast forward those 100 years – reproductive rights, working conditions, working families issues, jobs, equal pay are again at the forefront of our fight. But do we stop to think there are women workers today who do not have even the basics. I want you to know and remember 17 year Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez. In 2008 while working in the fields near Stockton she died from heat related illness because the employer failed to provide even the basic necessities of water and shade on a day over 95 degrees. No water in the first part of her shift. When water was provided it was about a 20 minute walk away. When she got sick, they put her in the van and there she stayed until the end of the workers’ shift. In a hot van, no air conditioning, no emergency care. In 2005 then Governor Schwarzenegger signed a bill providing the basic needs for workers in the fields. Even with those laws in place, the employer chose to ignore them. Apparently the employers have no fear of the laws being enforced.  Women in the labor movement – men in the labor movement – decent humans in the human race – should not tolerate this happening anywhere. Stockton is not a third world country and workers here should not have to die to provide for their families. It just shows me that our work is never done. To allow one more death in our county because employers do not follow the laws is unconscionable.

To our sisters before us who fought so valiantly so that we can vote and join unions, we cannot let their work go in vain. We are each busy fighting for our own cause – but please take a moment to thank the Women Labor Warriors and Suffragettes who allow us the opportunity to fight and vote for our causes.

Marcie Bayne

Executive Director, North Valley Labor Federation

Secretary Treasurer, San Joaquin Calaveras Counties Central Labor Council

Central CA CLUW(Coalition of Labor Union Women)Charter Member