Brave and Free

March 4, 1984

This is a speech on the 80th anniversary of the pioneering women's labor organization, the Women's Trade Union League. It was given at a celebration in Boston's Faneuil Hall, where the League was born.

 

            On November 14, 1903, the National Women's Trade Union League was founded in this very hall, at a meeting during a convention of the American Federation of Labor, the composition of which at the time was overwhelmingly male. It was formed to organize women into unions. Only a handful of working women were even present at the convention, and they had had bitter experience trying to organize their fellow women and getting little or no support from the AFL.   Among them were:
 
            Ellen Lindstrom of Chicago, the founder and leader of an 800 member female union of ladies' custom tailors, the Swedish Special Order Workers; they had had a long jurisdictional dispute with the AFL's United Garment Workers, which the Federation had resolved the year before by ordering the women to affiliate. The United Garment Workers, with some help from the garment manufacturers and the Teamsters, then proceeded to destroy the female union; this process was going on at the time this convention took place.
 
            Leonora O'Reilly, a garment worker from the Lower East Side, had spent the years between 1893 and 1897 trying fruitlessly to organize a woman's local of this same United Garment Workers. With the help of settlement workers at Henry Street Settlement, she succeeded in organizing Local #16, but she got no cooperation from the union Executive Board and the local soon folded.
 
            Mary Kenney O'Sullivan, who began as a small town Illinois bookbinder, had done such extraordinary organizing in Chicago that the AFL had actually appointed her as their first woman organizer. But the appointment lasted only 6 months; just when she was getting going, the Federation decided it didn't have the money to waste on frills like organizing women.
 
            The men on the AFL Executive Board were not at all certain that women should even be working outside the home. They believed in the "family wage" as a principal object of trades unionism: organization would enable men to raise their wage scale high enough so that their wives and children would not have to work. Work was still considered unladylike; necessary perhaps in the case of widows or spinsters; reprehensible in married women. Consequently, AFL members saw unions as a basically male form of organization; if women wanted to help, they should join ladies' auxiliaries which promoted the union label.
 
            The craft unions that were the basic unit of the Federation refused to organize women working in their trade, on the grounds they were unskilled; but they also refused to let them into their apprenticeship programs. It was a vicious circle. Men like the printers often ended up hurting themselves as much as their female competitors, since the unorganized women worked for much less money than they and undercut their wages. But they saw no solution to the problem other than driving women out of the workplace, back into the home.
 
            Even those AFL unions that professed willingness to organize women found it hard to do so because of all the restrictions placed on women at the time. Much social life for unmarried people was sex-segregated or took place in the home, except among radicals. When a male organizer tried to recruit a young girl, his intentions might be misunderstood. And where could he talk union, unless the girl lived at home and her family was sympathetic—many working girls lived in boarding houses where male visitors were not allowed.
 
            Besides, the male culture of the union locals made it hard for women to feel at home. Union men held their meetings in saloons, filled with cigar smoke, sometimes in disreputable neighborhoods. Having respectable women at these meetings would cramp their style. These craft locals were almost like men's lodges, comparable, perhaps, to branches of the Veterans of Foreign Wars or the Shriners. Also, they met at night so they could go home for dinner first, then out for the evening.
 
            But women liked to go to meetings right after work, so they could go home and stay home. They always had a lot of work to do at home. Even if they'd felt comfortable going to meetings in saloons at night, their parents wouldn't have let them; it wasn't decent. Moreover, the men ran the meetings and young, often inexperienced or timid women found it very difficult to talk in them.
 
            For all these reasons—the men's opposition to organizing women and the social barriers to their doing so—it made sense to have women organizers and women's locals, at least until there were enough women to make a dent on the male culture of trade unions. The Women's Trade Union League was an attempt to do so—to provide an organizational base for bringing women
into the labor movement.
 
            William English Walling, a socialist settlement worker, brought the idea back from England, where a similar organization had been in existence for years. And here, as in England, the working women found their strongest allies in middle-class feminists who had been dissatisfied with their own prescribed future of marriage, childbearing, and tea parties, and had carved out a place for themselves in the world of work. In 1903, the most prominent women of this kind could be found in the settlement houses, where a pioneer generation of social workers like Jane Addams, Florence Kelley, Mary McDowell, Lillian Wald, had built institutions that took them out of the middle-class suburbs where they had been reared and into the slums, where life was real and exciting, where they could help people and build a more just society.
 
            Over the next years, the working women and allies of the Women's Trade Union League did a great deal to bring women into unions. The League was especially important in support work in the huge mass strikes that organized the garment industry where so many women worked: its middle-class members raised money, did publicity, helped administer strike benefits, and supervised proceedings in the law courts, to limit the number of young women strikers who were railroaded to jail.
 
            The League made other important contributions: They paid a lot of attention to educating women organizers, eventually starting a summer school for the purpose at Bryn Mawr. They brought the issue of woman suffrage into the working class by taking speakers to union meetings. They fought for a minimum wage and for protective hours and weight limitations for women. They worked for child labor legislation. Their work in both these areas had great impact on government during the Roosevelt Administration, despite the years of anti-labor rulings by the Supreme Court that went on before.
 
            The League lost momentum after World War I, however. There was an anti-labor climate in the Twenties, comparable to that of today. A vicious open-shop drive put many unions out of business and the leadership of the AFL seemed too conservative and moribund to do any organizing. Under Chief Justice William Howard Taft, the Supreme Court handed down rulings that made the secondary boycott criminal; forbade picket lines of more than 2 or 3 people, however peaceful; expanded the right of employers to bring damage suits against unions; upheld yellow dog contracts prohibiting a union from organizing; and declared the minimum wage law for women unconstitutional.
 
            Coming after the union-busting of the 20s, the first years of the Depression were terrible ones for all working people; mass unemployment prevailed and there weren't even any benefits. Still tied to the notion of the "family wage," the government and even union leaders tended to blame even unmarried women for taking jobs away from men in this crisis, and there was widespread support for the idea that no married woman should work. With the beginnings of the New Deal and its pro-labor legislation, and the wave of militance that resulted in the formation of the CIO, women again began to organize with men in heavy industry, in service industries, as well as the garment industry where the unions had nearly died out during the 20s. But the Women's Trade Union League was not part of the CIO drive. Tied to the craft unionism of the AFL, its first home, the League became less and less relevant to the changing needs of women in the labor movement, until finally, in 1950, it went out of business.
 
            Throughout this time, the percentage of women who worked for wages remained constant, hovering around 25% between 1910 to 1950. Only in the last twenty years has this changed drastically. 52% of US women now are in the wage economy; the most striking change is in the number of married women with small children who work. No longer is the idea of a family wage convincing; when President Reagan tried to introduce it as a theme, suggesting that the cause of the economic crisis might be an excessive number of working women, nobody responded. That is one big change since the Depression.
 
            Another change is the percentage of the labor movement that is now female. In 1910, only 3% of union members were women. In 1960, women made up 18.6% of all union members—at a time when the labor movement itself was probably bigger than ever before or since. In 1980, when the last government statistics were compiled, women were 24.2% of the total of union members; 30% if you include membership in associations like the National Education Association. [i]
 
            This remarkable change did not come from any vast organizing drive directed at women. In Ruth Milkman's phrase, it was partly "the unintended consequence of a series of piecemeal efforts to offset the general decline in union membership by organizing particular occupational groups--teachers, hospital workers, and government employees, most importantly—which happened to include large numbers of women. By 1980, nearly half of the six million organized women workers in the U.S. were in three employment categories: educational services, medical services and public administration."
 
            The number of women is larger than before mainly in comparison, because the number of men has shrunk so much in this period of runaway shops, decertification campaigns, and widespread unemployment in heavy industry. The government has been more successful in stigmatizing the workers who built the CIO than in driving women out of the labor market. We've all heard by now that it was the unreasonable demands of men in auto and steel that caused the crisis in those industries, rather than any bad planning on the part of the manufacturers or any fundamental irrationality in the system itself.
 
            Last week's Supreme Court decision recommending bankruptcy as a way of breaking union contracts[ii] is probably the most serious attack on the basic ground-rules of labor relations since the 20s. It comes at a time when the labor movement is so isolated that not even all the Democratic presidential candidates feel obliged to court it; when its social vision has narrowed and its militance has been suppressed; when much of its leadership is so aged and conservative that it seems to lack any energy to fight, and its main response to the crisis has been give-backs. So far, when there has been militancy in local unions or internationals, such as the Greyhound workers or the air controllers, it has been crushed by the superior force of the government or management.
 
            In the last crisis of this magnitude, it took a combination of the CIO and the New Deal to get the labor movement going again. What will it take this time? And in this crisis, does it matter if 30% of the labor movement is female? Where will women workers—or any workers—find a place to stand?
 
            And what about the feminist movement? Will it be able to reconstitute itself with some of the spirit of the 60s, turn away from the goddesses and dressing for success, and regain a social spirit that can help it deal with working class and minority issues as its own? It is impossible to predict at this time whether any of these things wil happen, and whether changes in what somecall "the objective situation" will eventually produce a labor movement that can reflect the experience and needs of both genders in the working class.
 
            But one thing is clear to anyone who studies labor history: a labor movement that is also a women's movement is a whole other ball game from the "male lodges" that have been the normal form of labor organization the US.
 
            Labor movements in which women have predominated and led have, in their periods of strength, seen the community and its issues as part of their struggle, fighting for comprehensive education as well as for wage increases. They have had an emotional and inspirational tone that drew people in and reached them at the gut level. And they have, perhaps because women workers are the lowest of the low, been able to grasp the need for integrating education and culture and social welfare into the labor movement. For part of the old US socialist ideal of rising with your class instead of from it is that the labor movement should have its own cultural institutions, so its members don't have to leave the working class to go to college or concerts or find allies.
 
            The working women who joined the Women's Trade Union League in the early years of the century found help in the feminist movement. But many trade union women today find it hard to relate to those parts of the feminist movement that have an organized public face. The feminists that are visible often seem in hot pursuit of professional careers, or else turning inward to build an alternative culture, withdrawing from the one most of us live in. And while the impact of women's liberation is clear in organizations like 925 and CLUW, working women have not gotten the practical help they should be able to count on from the feminist movement, even in things as simple SIEU’s local 925’s boycott of Equitable Life Insurance. I fear that until feminists like those here today are well-organized enough to realize their fantasies, this will continue to be true.
 
            Clearly the labor movement must be revitalized and supported if either women workers or male workers are to get anywhere. Will a labor movement that is more than a third female find new ways to tackle this difficult task? It will certainly need a spirit and vitality it lacks now, as well as a new generation of leadership shaped by the struggles of the 60s.
 

            Women's Trade Union League outreach meetings often featured choral singing or folk dancing as well as lectures on trade union economics. Some of the AFL men laughed at the League for this and said it showed they weren't really part of the labor movement at all. But the working girls who came to the meetings seemed to like the singing and dancing. Most of them got little enough of that sort of thing in the rest of their lives. A movement that is purely and only economic is not a movement at all; any living movement has to have social and cultural and emotional components. Let us take that thought as a message from the Women's Trade Union League on this, its anniversary, and hope that it will get us through the hard times ahead, into the sunshine.

[i] Today women make up 40% of the labor movement—but the labor movement has shrunk to 12% of the labor force, comparable to what it was a hundred years ago. (Sharon Johnson, “Women Add Union Sectors, Fueling Labor’s Revival,” Women’s Enews, Feb. 19, 2008)
 
[ii] NLRB vs. Bildisco & Bildisco, Feb. 22, 1984, ruled that a company that has filed for bankruptcy could cancel union contracts, cut wages, and lay off workers without having to prove that the contract would cause the company to go broke.
 
Much credit for whatever is good in this speech is due to Ruth Miklman, who helped immeasurably and is the source of many of the ideas here.
 
 

 

Copyright © Meredith Tax 2010. All Rights Reserved.