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.

You Can’t Fool Me—Celebrating Labor Day

President Obama is celebrating this Labor Day by making a speech calling for a higher federal minimum wage for workers. There are plenty of voices proclaiming that a higher minimum wage will kill jobs, although there is no evidence that these laws do. The

Mother Jones leading a union march  in Colorado
Mother Jones leading a union march in Colorado
history of minimum wage laws is a checkered one. In 1938 President Franklin Roosevelt said in one of his radio “Fireside chats” “Do not let any calamity-howling executive with an income of $1,000 a day, …tell you…that a wage of $11 a week is going to have a disastrous effect on all American industry”. A wage of $11 a week seems laughable now, but the same voices have expressed the same sentiment year after year whenever the minimum wage levels have been raised.

Today is Labor Day and it is a time to honor the unions that have helped bring better wages and better conditions to workers across America. Remember the old Woody Guthrie song:

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 are plenty of reasons today to stick to your union, that is, if you are lucky enough to have one. As we celebrate another Labor Day, I can’t resist reprinting a blog that I first wrote two years ago.

Why are so many Americans anti-labor these days? Probably because they forget what life was like in a pre-union world. At least one day a year, on Labor Day, we ought to try to remember those days and honor the people who changed the rules. Clothing workers are a good example of why unions were needed. It was an industry dominated by women, most of them immigrant women. Some of them worked in small factories, others took the work home. Jacob Riis had described the conditions during the 1890s. In How the Other Half Lives he wrote: “From every door multitudes of tired men and women pour forth for half-hour’s rest in the open air before sleep closes the eyes weary with incessant working.” Factories were not much better than working at home. There were no limitation on working hours, safety rules were nonexistent, workers were hired and laid off erratically as demand rose and fell. There was no health insurance and no unemployment benefits. If your family couldn’t help you out, you were just out of luck.

The Triangle Shirt Waist Factory fire in 1911 finally awakened many people to the dangers of unregulated factory work. Pictures like this documented the horror of young women trapped into an unsafe factory. The doors to the fire escapes had been locked to keep workers

Picture of bodies from the Triangle factory fire.
Triangle Factory Fire 1911 (ILGWU photo)
from stealing fabric or sneaking outside for a break. Gradually most of the public woke up to the fact that regulations were needed to keep employers from exploiting workers. The International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) grew and through negotiation and strikes finally forged agreements that made many people’s lives better.

Women like Rose Pesotta traveled across the country to organize clothing workers. She went to Los Angeles where the clothing industry workers were mostly Mexican immigrants. Rose was told that Mexican women would never join a union, but she disagreed. She started broadcasting on the local Spanish-language radio station and found a willing audience. As she wrote in her memoir Bread upon the Waters, “Gradually the Mexicans in the dress factories came to our union headquarters, asking questions timidly but eagerly. Some employers, learning of signed membership cards, scoffed: “They won’t stick.” Others were plainly worried. Women not yet in our ranks came with the disquieting news that their boss had threatened to report them to the immigration authorities and have them “sent back” if they joined our union. We promised that our attorneys would fight any such underhanded move.” Gradually the workers were won over, they agreed to strike and eventually the ILGWU was able to ensure them better working conditions through the union.

The ILGWU revolutionized the lives of millions of women across the country, and even though it gradually lost members and strength as the century went on, it remains a shining example of what Americans can do when they work together. The same can be said of other unions which made America a country recognized across the world as a land of promise. The conditions brought about by union workers made the late twentieth century a prosperous time for almost all working families. Today on Labor Day let’s pay tribute to the people who fought to give us unions. They are not always perfect, and sometimes their demands can’t be met, but they have been a blessing for the country. Let’s work with them and not try to wipe them out.