Remembering Women in the Labor Movement

Greg Boles
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Partner at The Boles Firm | Experience Matters

Philip Foner's re-issued Women and the American Labor Movement reminds us of the crucial role women played in U.S. labor history.  Women led the Lowell, Massachusetts textile strike in 1836, one of the first strikes to ever take place in the United States.  During the second quarter of the 19th century, New England textile factories were highly profitable, which led to the building of more factories and thus overproduction and a drop in profits.  To compensate, mill owners increased the work pace and reduced wages among workers who were already laboring an average of 73 hours per week.  In October 1836, when the directors of the mills hiked rents in the company boarding houses, the “Girls of Lowell Mill” went on strike, some of them as young as 10 years old.  Confronting substantially reduced production, the directors cancelled the hike.

Eighty years later, conditions in the mills had not improved significantly.  A medical examiner looking at health conditions in the Lawrence, Massachusetts textile mills determined that large numbers of children died in the first two or three years after beginning work and that 36 out of every 100 workers died in the mills before they reached the age of 25.  When the Massachusetts government began enforcing a law reducing the number of hours women could work from 56 to 54 hours and mill owners reduced their pay, defiant workers of 40 different nationalities went on strike through a brutally cold winter, defying assumptions that a largely immigrant and female group of workers could not be organized.  By the time the strike ended, the IWW (popularly known as the Wobblies) had 10,000 more members, 60 percent of them women. 

With the entry of large numbers of women into the workforce during the Second World War, millions of women joined the CIO.  Unfortunately, with the Communist hysteria of the 1950s, the CIO expelled allegedly Communist dominated unions, many of which had large numbers of women, a huge blow to women’s rights. 

Women organizing the hospital strikes of the 1950s and 60s realized they needed allies in the civil rights movement because they needed to attract African American and Hispanic women hospital workers.  Local 1199, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s favorite union, won a $100.00 per week minimum for non‑professional voluntary hospital workers, a great victory in 1968.  Women also played major roles in the farm workers strikes of the early 1970s and the textile strikes in the 1970s, made famous by the film Norma Rae. Foner's history ends in the beginning of 1982 amid a steady decline in union strength that continues today, but time to recognize the vital role women played in American labor history is long overdue.

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