Labor Day Is for Women

Lowell Mill girls
Labor Day belongs to women. That may not be the way most people look at it, but history shows us that some of the earliest agitators for workers’ rights were women. Take the women of the Lowell Mills in Massachusetts, for example. They set the pattern for the cooperative struggle that finally brought us Labor Day.

In the early 1800s, New England was primarily agricultural. Small farmers tilled the fields and raised livestock in most states. If a man did not own enough land for all of his sons to carry on with farming, there was plenty of land in the West that could be settled and farmed.

But times were changing. Manufacturing became another source of wealth after Francis Cabot Lowell imported the secret of English looms to America. The Lowell mills in Massachusetts took advantage of the easy availability of waterpower and the low cost of cotton from Southern states, and a new industry was born.

The Lowell Mills soon found a good source of cheap labor among the daughters of New England farmers. Girls in their late teens could earn as much as $1.85 to $3.00 a week in the mills. There was no need for the mill owners to worry about their health or stamina. If anything went wrong, they could be sent back to their families. And when they got married, their husbands were expected to take care of their retirement.

All of the young women lived in boarding houses owned by the factory and paid room and board out of their salaries. Their activities were supervised by the boarding house matrons who saw that the girls went to church every Sunday and did not engage in unseemly activities during the week. They were encouraged to continue their education by attending lectures and writing articles for the mill’s newspaper, Lowell Offering. You can read some of their writing in Benita Eisler’s anthology The Lowell Offering: Writings by New England Mill Woman.

When the economy sagged during the 1830s, the mill girls’ work hours were increased to 75 hours a week. Many of them no longer had time for writing or even reading. In 1834 and again in 1836, they joined together to go on strike and demand shorter hours. Both strikes were defeated, but the mill girls did not give up. In the 1840s they formed the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association to press for reducing the workday to 10 hours. Although women could not vote at that time, the mill girls started a petition campaign to bring their demands before the legislature. Unfortunately, despite the publicity generated, their efforts failed. The ten-hour day was not won for most workers until many years later. Mill owners discovered they could hire immigrant woman to work in the mills for long hours at lower pay than the local farm girls.

Although their early efforts were not successful, the Lowell Mills girls had started something. Years after their time had passed, other women such as Mother Jones and Rose Pesotta led successful drives to encourage women to join unions and make working conditions more humane. And one of the most famous union songs of all times, memorably recorded by Pete Seeger, was written by a woman:

Which Side Are You On?
A Song by Florence Patton Reese

Come all of you good workers
Good news to you I’ll tell
Of how that good old union
Has come in here to dwell

Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?

My daddy was a miner
And I’m a miner’s son
And I’ll stick with the union
Till every battle’s won

They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J.H. Blair

Labor Day would be a good day to listen to that song one more time.

Thinking about Working Women on Labor Day

Next Monday, September 7,  will be celebrated as Labor Day in the United States (Labour Day in Canada) and thousands of people will hold picnics or parades and watch fireworks to celebrate the day. This day marks the end of summer and more people will worry about beating the traffic on their way to an event than about the state of labor in the country. That’s too bad because Labor Daythere has been a lot of news recently that affects labor—the minimum wage has been raised in several California cities and in Seattle to $15 per hour; on the downside are the revelations recently published in the New York Times about how difficult it is to work at Several commentators have used this article as the basis for condemning the tech industry in general for expecting longer hours and worse treatment than employees should accept. It seems clear that the situation for working people is a confused and contentious one. That’s nothing new.

The Labor Day holiday began during the 1880s, sponsored by labor unions as a way of forwarding their campaign to established the eight-hour day. There is still argument about whether it was Matthew Maguire or Peter McGuire who first proposed a day to honor labor. Both men were active union men and they were probably thinking of labor as representing primarily working men, but actually women have often been the people who benefitted most from the labor laws sponsored by unions. The eight-hour day was a step forward for women who worked in factories and mills. Over the years the 58-hour week has become the 40-hour week making it possible for women to work and yet have enough time to take care of their families.

During the early part of the 20th century, unions grew stronger helped by the strikes sponsored by women who worked in the garment trades. The establishment of the ILGWU (International Ladies Garment Workers Union) helped to make

Garment workers in NY on strike
Garment workers in NY on strike

women workers an integral part of the labor movement. Most of the workers in the garment industry in New York at that time were immigrant girls and women who were willing to strike to support their demands. Although the struggle to win recognition of the ILGWU was long and difficult, it convinced many women of the importance of the union movement. Woody Guthrie celebrated the women union supporters in his song “There Once Was a Union Maid”

Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union,
I’m sticking to the union, I’m sticking to the union.
Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union,
I’m sticking to the union ’til the day I die.

There aren’t many women working in garment factories in New York any more, or even in the United States. Instead, most of the women’s clothing used in America come from countries like China, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, where the union movement has never been powerful. We were reminded of that two years ago

Picture of bodies from the Triangle factory fire.
Triangle Factory Fire 1911 (ILGWU photo)

in April of 2013 when the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh collapsed killing more than 1,000 people, most of them young women workers. Just like the women killed in the terrible Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in New York a hundred years earlier, these women were struggling to make a living while getting low wages and often being ordered to work in unsafe conditions.

The world stood by in horror as the month-long search for survivors continued. The newly-elected Pope Francis expressed the feelings of many when he pointed out that no one should have been working under the conditions at Rana Plaza. As reported by the Huffington Post, the Pope said:

A headline that really struck me on the day of the tragedy in Bangladesh was ‘Living on 38 euros a month’. That is what the people who died were being paid. This is called slave labour. Today in the world this slavery is being committed against something beautiful that God has given us – the capacity to create, to work, to have dignity. How many brothers and sisters find themselves in this situation! Not paying fairly, not giving a job because you are only looking at balance sheets, only looking at how to make a profit. That goes against God![

 Now, within the last few days there has been more information about Rana Plaza. A documentary film was made about the disaster focusing on the life of one young woman who survived. Unfortunately, a judge in Bangladesh has ruled that the film cannot be shown for at least six months because it shows the garment industry in Bangladesh in a bad light. The women who work in the garment industry in Bangladesh and other developing countries need the support of the labor movement in America and Europe to ensure that their safety is recognized as being more important than the profits to be gained by corporations exploiting them.

Let’s make this Labor Day one to remember the workers throughout the world who still need the solidary and strength of the labor movement to give them the respect they need to make a decent living for themselves and their families.