This article was originally published at Labor Notes.
Union women are leading labor forward. You can see it in the flurry of teacher strikes—Los Angeles teachers were the latest to authorize one—and in the September walkout by McDonald’s workers in many major cities, an anti-sexual harassment action linked to the Fight for $15.
Teachers union membership is predominately female, and has been so for decades. In fact, elementary school teaching in the 1970s was a very low-paid “pink-collar ghetto,” wrote noted labor historian Philip Foner in his groundbreaking book, Women and the American Labor Movement—recently reprinted at last, and covering its topic from Jacksonian times to 1982.
Women haven’t always been at home in the labor movement. Women workers struggled through the 19th and 20th centuries to be accepted not just by management but also by male-dominated unions. For decades the AFL did little more than pay lip service to equal pay for equal work. But not so the Industrial Workers of the World, nor later the Congress of Industrial Organizations.
Unlike the AFL, the IWW in the early 20th century employed women as organizers. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was the “rebel girl” of Joe Hill’s song. A socialist and labor radical, she held an executive position in the IWW.
Women were crucial in the great 1936-7 CIO organizing campaigns. This was the era of the wildly successful sit-down strike—before the Supreme Court declared that union tool illegal. In 1937, Foner writes, “there were 477 sit-down strikes, affecting over 300,000 workers.”
Bread and Roses
Foner lists dozens of female labor notables over the course of two centuries, many unsung.
They took part in the great Lawrence, Massachusetts, textile strike of 1912. “‘A considerable number of boys and girls die within the first two or three years after beginning work,’ wrote a medical examiner studying health conditions in the Lawrence mills. “Thirty six out of every hundred of all men and women…