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  • Kyra Freeman

Women’s History Month is About Worker’s History

Women’s Strike for Equality in New York City August, 1970.

Before International Women’s Day was co-opted and purple washed by corporations, it was a day of celebrating revolutionary workers rights advocates.

Being a laborer during the industrial revolution was a harsh reality. Workers faced twelve to sixteen hour shifts, poverty level wages, unsanitary and unsafe working conditions, and more. Women who worked during this time faced it all, alongside other issues. Disregarded by current labor unions, they sought to make their own. Mill women who faced child labor, wage cuts and thirteen hour shifts created the first union of working women in 1836. The Lowell Female Labor Reform Association worked into the turn of the century, expanding their chapters and advocating for labor reforms. They played a part in inspiring the next generation of women in the labor movement, something that would blossom in the coming years.

One of the most influential women's unions of the time was the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL), founded in 1903. This union collected support from both young working women, who were majority lower-income immigrants, and more surprisingly, also high class Protestant women. The affluent women deemed the “mink brigade,” offered the union financial support, and their social status boosted the movement's legitimacy. These funds sustained the WTUL by paying striking women’s food and rent costs and bailing activists out of jail. The WTUL also worked closely with the suffragist movement, with a leader of the union stating the need for suffrage was so women could better improve their working conditions.

National Women’s Day was established in 1909 by the Socialist Party of America to celebrate the anniversary of thousands of female garment workers going on strike in the Uprising of 20,000. The strike began over concerns about workplace safety, reasonable pay, hours and workplace indignities. Out of the over 20,000 who striked, an estimated 70% were women, and 90% were Jewish. Clara Lemlich was a 23 year old Jewish immigrant who is recognized for helping incite the strike. Lemlich had worked in the industry for six years and recognized early the dehumanizing conditions and stridently fought for change. During the strike, the WTUL and “mink brigade” funded and walked the picket lines with workers. For nearly three months, in the harsh New York winter, this continued; picketers dealt with strong backlash -- Clara Lemlich even suffered six broken ribs and seventeen arrests by the end of the strike, and only some of their demands were met. The workers came from the powerful garment manufacturing industry, and strikes began against the most powerful companies, including the Leiserson Company, the Rosen Brothers, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. By the end of the strike, 85% of all shirtwaist makers in New York joined the union, and 339 firms signed contracts conceding to most demands.

Of the big three companies only the Rosen Brothers settled with their workers, Leierson and Triangle Shirtwaist were uncompromising. While the strike made changes to the industry the hazardous conditions were still apparent, most notably demonstrated by the Triangle Shirtwaist fire only three years later. The factory had already suffered two separate fires, but no sprinkler systems were installed. The tragedy claimed the life of 146 workers, 129 being women and a majority Jewish and Italian immigrants.

Similar to the Uprising of 20,000, International Women's Day was marked by female textile workers' strike in Petrograd, Russia in 1917. They faced similar issues of unsafe working conditions, low pay and long working hours. With these factors, Russia being at war, and bread rations cut, women grew tired of tsarist rule. They took to the street on March 8th demanding an end to the war, bread for the workers, and incited other work stoppages. The women were said to be vital in gaining support from the military, Leon Trotsky said women would walk up, grab their rifles, and demand they join their movement, and many would. The movement's power proved too overwhelming with Tsar Nicholas II abdicating the throne, power was relinquished to the provisional government, but it was soon overthrown by the communist October Revolution.

Women Strike in Russia’s February Revolution (March 1917)

Women continued to represent the labor movement, although they are often forgotten. In 1937 over 100 young women workers started a 8-day takeover of their store, Woolworth, the largest retailer of the era. Their boldness paid off, within five hours Woolthorth’s competitors raised their own workers wages, the sitdown spread to second store, and inspired countless other industries to have their own sit-down strikes. Eventually, Woolworth conceded into all their demands giving them raises, recognition and hiring through their union, and other benefits. Historians say that the Woolworth strike was pivotal to the existence of union power in America.

In the 1960s César Chávez formed the United Farm Workers with his equally influential co-founder Delores Huerta. Her organizing helped start some of the industries most influential strikes of the 60s and 70s that lead to successful union contracts and revolutionary policy reforms. In 1982 over 20,000 women once again took to the streets for Chinatown’s garment worker strike. It has been dubbed the most influential collective action Asian immigrant women have ever engaged in, shifting the dynamics of the Chinese American community toward workers rights. This strike led to the traditional labor unions working closer with Asian American workers and eventually the foundation of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, the only national organization for Asian American and Pacific Island workers.

There are countless other stories of women who have impacted the labor movement, and thus created women’s history. This month it’s important to go back to the roots of the movement as working women still have tremendous strides to make from benefit such as family leave and reducing work palace inequalities like sexual harassment and the wage gap. Workers rights are women's rights and that’s what needs to be remembered this March.


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