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[Illustration: A Factory or a Home?]
TRADE UNION WOMAN
MEMBER OF OFFICE EMPLOYES’ ASSOCIATION OF CHICAGO. No. 12755. AND FORMERLY EDITOR OF _LIFE AND LABOR_
THE TRADE UNION WOMEN OF THE UNITED STATES AND CANADA
This brief account of trade unionism in relation to the working-women of the United States has been written to furnish a handbook of the subject, and to supply in convenient form answers to the questions that are daily put to the writer and to all others who feel the organization of women to be a vital issue.
To treat the subject exhaustively would be impossible without years of research, but meanwhile it seemed well to furnish this short popular account of an important movement, in order to satisfy the eager desire for information regarding the working-woman, and her attitude towards the modern labor movement, and towards the national industries in regard to which she plays so essential a part. Women are doing their share of their country’s work under entirely novel conditions, and it therefore becomes a national responsibility to see that the human worker is not sacrificed to the material product.
Many of the difficulties and dangers surrounding the working-woman affect the workingman also, but on the other hand, there are special reasons, springing out of the ancestral claims which life makes upon woman, arising also out of her domestic and social environment, and again out of her special function as mother, why the condition of the wage-earning woman should be the subject of separate consideration. It is impossible to discuss intelligently wages, hours and sanitation in reference to women workers unless these facts are borne in mind.
What makes the whole matter of overwhelming importance is the wasteful way in which the health, the lives, and the capacity for future motherhood of our young girls are squandered during the few brief years they spend as human machines in our factories and stores. Youth, joy and the possibility of future happiness lost forever, in order that we may have cheap (or dear), waists or shoes or watches.
Further, since the young girl is the future mother of the race, it is she who chooses the father of her children. Every condition, either economic or social, whether of training or of environment, which in any degree tends to limit her power of choice, or to narrow its range, or to lower her standards of selection, works out in a national and racial deprivation. And surely no one will deny that the degrading industrial conditions under which such a large number of our young girls live and work do all of these, do limit and narrow the range of selection and do lower the standards of the working-girl in making her marriage choice.
Give her fairer wages, shorten her hours of toil, let her have the chance of a good time, of a happy girlhood, and an independent, normal woman will be free to make a real choice of the best man. She will not be tempted to passively accept any man who offers himself, just in order to escape from a life of unbearable toil, monotony and deprivation.
So far, women and girls, exploited themselves, have been used as an instrument yet further to cheapen and exploit men. In this direction things could hardly reach a lower level than they have done.
Now the national conscience has at length been touched regarding women, and we venture to hope that in proportion as women have been used to debase industrial standards, so in like degree as the nation insists upon better treatment being accorded her, the results may so react upon the whole field of industry that men too may be sharers in the benefits.
But there is a mightier force at work, a force more significant and more characteristic of our age than even the awakened civic conscience, showing itself in just and humane legislation. That is the spirit of independence expressed in many different forms, markedly in the new desire and therefore in the new capacity for collective action which women are discovering in themselves to a degree never known before.
As regards wage-earning working-women, the two main channels through which this new spirit is manifesting itself are first, their increasing efforts after industrial organization, and next in the more general realization by them of the need of the vote as a means of self-expression, whether individual or collective.
Thus the trade union on the one hand, offering to the working-woman protection in the earning of her living, links up her interests with those of her working brother; while on the other hand, in the demand for the vote women of all classes are recognizing common disabilities, a common sisterhood and a common hope.
This book was almost completed when the sound of the war of the nations broke upon our ears. It would be vain to deny that to all idealists, of every shade of thought, the catastrophe came as a stupefying blow. “It is unbelievable, impossible,” said one. “It can’t last,” added another. Reaction from that extreme of incredulity led many to take refuge in hopeless, inactive despair and cynicism.
Even the few months that have elapsed have enabled both the over-hopeful and the despairing to recover their lost balance, and to take up again their little share of the immemorial task of humanity, to struggle onward, ever onward and upward.
What had become of the movement of the workers, that they could have permitted a war of so many nations, in which the workers of every country involved must be the chief sufferers?
The labor movement, like every other idealist movement, contains a sprinkling of unpopular pessimistic souls, who drive home, in season and out of season, a few unpopular truths. One of these unwelcome truths is to the effect that the world is not following after the idealists half as fast as they think it is. Reformers of every kind make an amount of noise in the world these days out of all proportion to their numbers. They deceive themselves, and to a certain extent they deceive others. The wish to see their splendid visions a reality leads to the belief that they are already on the point of being victors over the hard-to-move and well-intrenched powers that be. As to the quality of his thinking and the soundness of his reasoning, the idealist is ahead of the world all the time, and just as surely the world pays him the compliment of following in his trail. But only in its own time and at its own good pleasure. It is in quantity that he is short. There is never enough of him to do all the tasks, to be in every place at once. Rarely has he converts enough to assure a majority of votes or voices on his side.
So the supreme crises of the world come, and he has for the time to step aside; to be a mere onlooker; to wait in awe-struck patience until the pessimist beholds the realization of his worst fears; until the optimist can take heart again, and reviving his crushed and withered hopes once more set their fulfillment forward in the future.
In spite of all, the idealist is ever justified. He is justified today in Europe no less than in America; justified by the ruin and waste that have come in the train of following outworn political creeds, and yielding to animosities inherited from past centuries; justified by the disastrous results of unchecked national economic competition, when the age of international cooeperation is already upon us; justified by the utter contempt shown by masculine rulers and statesmen for the constructive and the fostering side of life, typified and embodied in the woman half of society.
No! our ideals are not changed, nor are they in aught belittled by what has occurred. It is for us to cherish and guard them more faithfully, to serve them more devotedly than ever. Even if we must from now on walk softly all the days of our life, and prepare to accept unresentfully disappointment and heart-sickening delay, we can still draw comfort from this:
Hope thou not much, and fear thou not at all.
Meanwhile we sit, as it were, facing a vast stage, in front of us a dropped curtain. From behind that veil there reaches our strained ears now and then a cry of agony unspeakable, and again a faint whisper of hope.
But until that curtain is raised, after the hand of the war-fiend is stayed; until we can again communicate, each with the other as human beings and not as untamed, primitive savages, we can know in detail little that has happened, and foresee nothing that may hereafter happen.
That some of America’s industrial and social problems will be affected radically by the results of the European war goes without saying; how, and in what degree, it is impossible to foretell.
Meanwhile our work is here, and we have to pursue it. Whatever will strengthen the labor movement, or the woman movement, goes to strengthen the world forces of peace. Let us hold fast to that. And conversely, whatever economic or ethical changes will help to insure a permanent basis for world peace will grant to both the labor movement and the woman movement enlarged opportunity to come into their own.
Chicago, July, 1915.
I. EARLY TRADE UNIONS AMONG WOMEN
II. WOMEN IN THE KNIGHTS OF LABOR
III. THE BEGINNINGS OF MODERN ORGANIZATION
IV. THE WOMEN’S TRADE UNION LEAGUE
V. THE HUGE STRIKES
VI. THE IMMIGRANT WOMAN AND ORGANIZATION.
VII. THE WOMAN ORGANIZER
VIII. THE TRADE UNION IN OTHER FIELDS
IX. WOMEN AND THE VOCATIONS
X. WOMAN AND VOCATIONAL TRAINING
XI. THE WORKING WOMAN AND MARRIAGE
XII. THE WORKING WOMAN AND THE VOTE
XIII. TRADE-UNION IDEALS AND POLICIES
APPENDIX I AGREEMENT BETWEEN THE HOTEL AND RESTAURANT EMPLOYES INTERNATIONAL ALLIANCE AFFILIATED WITH THE AMERICAN AND CHICAGO FEDERATION OF LABOR
APPENDIX II. THE HART, SCHAFFNER AND MARX LABOR AGREEMENTS
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
A Factory or a Home?
In a Basement Sweatshop
Girl Gas Blowers
Interior of One of the Largest and Best Equipped Waist and Cloak Factories in New York City
It was a revolutionary change in our ways of thinking when the idea of development, social as well as physical, really took hold of mankind. But our minds are curiously stiff and slow to move, and we still mostly think of development as a process that has taken place, and that is going to take place–in the future. And that change is the very stuff of which life consists (not that change is taking place at this moment, but that this moment is change), that means another revolution in the world of thought, and it gives to life a fresh meaning. No one has, as it appears to me, placed such emphasis upon this as has Henri Bergson. It is not that he emphasizes the mere fact of the evolution of society and of all human relations. That, he, and we, may well take for granted. It has surely been amply demonstrated and illustrated by writers as widely separated in their interpretation of social evolution as Herbert Spencer and Karl Marx. But with the further thought in mind that, alike in the lowliest physical organism or in the most complex social organism, life itself is change, we view every problem of life from another angle. To see life steadily and see it whole is one stage. Bergson bids us see life on the move, ever changing, growing, evolving, a creation new every moment.
For students of society this means that we are to aim at the understanding of social processes, rather than stop short with the consideration of facts; facts are to be studied because they go to make up processes. We are not to stop short with the study of conditions, but go on to find out what tendencies certain conditions encourage. All social and industrial questions therefore are to be interpreted in their dynamic rather than in their static aspects.
In the Labor Museum of Hull House is shown a very ingenious diagram, representing the development on the mechanical side of the process of spinning, one of the oldest of the arts. It consists of a strip of cardboard, about a yard long, marked off into centuries and decades. From 2000 B.C. up to A.D. 1500 the hand spindle was the only instrument used. From 1500 up to the middle of the eighteenth century the spinning-wheel was used as well. From the middle of the eighteenth century up till today has been the period of the application of steam to spinning machinery.
The profound symbolism expressed by the little chart goes beyond the interesting fact in the history of applied physics and mechanics which it tells, on to the tremendous changes which it sums up. The textile industries were primarily women’s work, and with the mechanical changes in this group of primitive industries were inextricably bound up changes far more momentous in the social environment and the individual development of the worker.
Yet, if a profoundly impressive story, it is also a simple and plain one. It is so easy to understand because we have the help of history to interpret it to us, a help that fails us completely when, instead of being able to look from a distance and see events in their due proportions and in their right order, we are driven to extract as best we can a meaning from occurrences that happen and conditions that lie before our very eyes. That we cannot see the wood for the trees was never more painfully true than when we first try to tell a clear story amid the clatter and din of our industrial life. Past history is of little assistance in interpreting the social and industrial development, in which we ourselves are atoms. Much information is to be obtained, though piecemeal and with difficulty, but especially as relates to women, it has not yet been classified and ordered and placed ready to hand.
The industrial group activities of women are the inevitable, though belated result of the entry of women into the modern industrial system, and are called forth by the new demands which life is making upon women’s faculties. We cannot stop short here, and consider these activities mainly in regard to what has led up to them, nor yet as to what is their extent and effect today. Far more important is it to try to discover what are the tendencies, which they as yet faintly and imperfectly, often confusedly, express.
In the labor movement of this country woman has played and is playing an important part. But in its completeness no one knows the story, and those who know sections of it most intimately are too busy living their own parts in that story, to pause long enough to be its chroniclers. For to be part of a movement is more absorbing than to write about it. Whom then shall we ask? To whom shall we turn for even an imperfect knowledge of the story, at once noble and sordid, tragic and commonplace, of woman’s side of the labor movement? To whom, you would say, but to the worker herself? And where does the worker speak with such clearness, with such unfaltering steadiness, as through her union, the organization of her trade?
In the industrial maze the individual worker cannot interpret her own life story from her knowledge of the little patch of life which is all her hurried fingers ever touch. Only an organization can be an interpreter here. Fortunately for the student, the organization does act as interpreter, both for the organized women who have been drawn into the labor movement and for those less fortunate who are still struggling on single-handed and alone. The organized workers in one way or another come into fairly close relations with their unorganized sisters. Besides, the movement in its modern form is still so young that there is scarcely a woman worker in the unions who did not begin her trade life as an unorganized toiler.
Speaking broadly, the points upon which the trade-union movement concentrates are the raising of wages, the shortening of hours, the diminution of seasonal work, the abolition or regulation of piece-work, with its resultant speeding up, the maintaining of sanitary conditions, and the guarding of unsafe machinery, the enforcement of laws against child-labor, the abolition of taxes for power and working materials such as thread and needles, and of unfair fines for petty or unproved offenses–and with these, the recognition of the union to insure the obtaining and the keeping of all the rest.
A single case taken from a non-union trade (a textile trade, too) must serve to suggest the reasons that make organization a necessity. Twenty-one years ago in the bag and hemp factories of St. Louis, girl experts turned out 460 yards of material in a twelve-hour day, the pay being 24 cents per bolt (of from 60 to 66 yards). These girls earned $1.84 per day (on the bolt of from 60 to 66 yards). Four years ago a girl could not hold her job under 1,000 yards in a ten-hour day. “The fastest possible worker can turn out only 1,200 yards, and the price has dropped to 15 cents per hundred yards. The old rate of 24 cents per bolt used to net $1.80 to a very quick worker. The new rate to one equally competent is but $1.50. Workers have to fill a shuttle every minute and a half or two minutes. This necessitates the strain of constant vigilance, as the breaking of the thread causes unevenness, and for this operators are laid off for two or three days. The operators are at such a tension that they not only stand all day, but may not even bend their knees. The air is thick with lint, which the workers inhale. The throat and eyes are terribly affected, and it is necessary to work with the head bound up, and to comb the lint from the eyebrows. The proprietors have to retain a physician to attend the workers every morning, and medicine is supplied free, as an accepted need for everyone so engaged. One year is spent in learning the trade, and the girls last at it only from three to four years afterwards. Some of them enter marriage, but many of them are thrown on the human waste-heap. One company employs nearly 1,000 women, so that a large number are affected by these vile and inhuman conditions. The girls in the trade are mostly Slovaks, Poles and Bohemians, who have not long been in this country. In their inexperience they count $1.50 as good wages, although gained at ever so great a physical cost.”
These are intolerable conditions, and that tens of thousands are enduring similar hardships in the course of earning a living and contributing their share towards the commercial output of the country only aggravates the cruelty and the injustice to the helpless and defrauded girls. It is not an individual problem merely. It is a national responsibility shared by every citizen to see that such cruelty and such injustice shall cease. No system of commercial production can be permanently maintained which ignores the primitive rights of the human workers to such returns for labor as shall provide decent food, clothing, shelter, education and recreation for the worker and for those dependent upon him or her, as well as steadiness of employment, and the guarantee of such working conditions as shall not be prejudicial to health.
If the community is not to be moved either by pity or by a sense of justice then perhaps it will awake to a realization of the national danger involved when so many of the workers, and especially when so many of the girls and women work under circumstances ruinous to health, and affording, besides, small chance for all-round normal development on either the individual or the social side. These are evils whose results do not die out with the generation primarily involved, but must as well through inheritance as through environment injure the children of the workers, and their offspring yet unborn.
The passing away from the individual worker of personal control over the raw material and the instruments of production, which has accompanied the advent of the factory system, means that some degree of control corresponding to that formerly possessed by the individual should be assured to the group of workers in the factory or the trade. Such control is assured through the collective power of the workers, acting in cooeperation in their trade union. One reason why the woman worker is in so many respects worse off than the man is because she has so far enjoyed so little of the protection of the trade union in her work. Why she has not had it, and why more and more she desires it, is what I will try to show in the following pages.
There is one criticism, to which almost every writer dealing with a present-day topic, lies exposed. That is, why certain aspects of the subject, or certain closely related questions, have either not been dealt with at all, or touched on only lightly. For instance, the subject of the organization of wage-earning women is indeed bound up with the industrial history of the United States, with the legal and social position of women, with the handicaps under which the colored races suffer, and with the entire labor problem.
In answer I can but plead that there had to be some limits. These are all matters which have been treated by many others, and I intentionally confined myself to a section of the field not hitherto covered.
Though the greatest care has been taken to avoid errors, some mistakes have doubtless crept in and the author would be glad to have these pointed out. I acknowledge gratefully what I owe to others, whether that help has come to me through books and periodical literature or through personal information from those possessing special expert knowledge. No one can ever begin to repay such a debt, but such thanks as are possible, I offer here.
The brief historical sketch of the early trade unions is based almost entirely upon the “History of Women in Trade Unions,” Volume X, of the “Report on the Condition of Women and Child Wage-Earners in the United States,” issued by the Commissioner of Labor, then Mr. Charles P. Neill. Dr. John B. Andrews deals with the earlier period, and he shows how persistent have been the efforts of working-women to benefit themselves through collective action.
“Organization,” he writes, “among working-women, contrary to the general impression, is not new. Women, from the beginning of the trade-union movement in this country have occupied an important place in the ranks of organized labor. For eighty years and over, women wage-earners in America have formed trade unions and gone on strike for shorter hours, better pay, and improved conditions. The American labor movement had its real beginning about the year 1825. In that year the tailoresses of New York formed a union.”
The history of women in trade unions he divides into four periods: (1) the beginnings of organization, extending from 1825 to about 1840; (2) the development of associations interested in labor reform, including the beginnings of legislative activity, 1840 to 1860; (3) the sustained development of pure trade unions, and the rise of the struggle over the suffrage, 1860 to 1880; and (4) the impress and educative influence of the Knights of Labor, 1881 to date, and the present development under the predominant leadership of the American Federation of Labor.
THE TRADE UNION WOMAN
EARLY TRADE UNIONS AMONG WOMEN 1825-1840
The earliest factory employment to engage large numbers of women was the cotton industry of New England, and the mill hands of that day seem to have been entirely native-born Americans. The first power loom was set up in Waltham, Massachusetts, in 1814, and the name of the young woman weaver who operated it was Deborah Skinner. In 1817 there were three power looms in Fall River, Massachusetts; the weavers were Sallie Winters, Hannah Borden and Mary Healy.
The first form of trade-union activity among wage-earning women in the United States was the local strike. The earliest of these of which there is any record was but a short-lived affair. It was typical, nevertheless, of the sudden, impulsive uprising of the unorganized everywhere. It would hardly be worth recording, except that in such hasty outbursts of indignation against the so unequal distribution of the burdens of industry lies the germ of the whole labor movement. This small strike took place in July, 1828, in the cotton mills of Paterson, New Jersey, among the boy and girl helpers over the apparently trifling detail of a change of the dinner hour from twelve o’clock to one. Presently there were involved the carpenters, masons and machinists in a general demand for a ten-hour day. In a week the strike had collapsed, and the leaders found themselves out of work, although the point on which the young workers had gone out was conceded.
It was among the mill operatives of Dover, New Hampshire, that the first really important strike involving women occurred. This was in December of the same year (1828). On this occasion between three hundred and four hundred women went out. The next we hear of the Dover girls is six years later, when eight hundred went out in resistance to a cut in wages. These women and girls were practically all the daughters of farmers and small professional men. For their day they were well educated, often teaching school during a part of the year. They prided themselves on being the “daughters of freemen,” and while adapting themselves for the sake of earning a living to the novel conditions of factory employment, they were not made of the stuff to submit tamely to irritating rules of discipline, to petty despotism, and to what they felt was a breach of tacit agreement, involved in periodical cutting of wages. Although most of them may have but dimly understood that factory employment required the protection of a permanent organization for the operatives, and looked to the temporary combination provided by the strike for the remedy of their ills, still there was more in the air, and more in the minds of some of the girl leaders than just strikes undertaken for the purpose of abolishing single definite wrongs.
That employers recognized this, and were prepared to stifle in the birth any efforts that their women employes might make towards maintaining permanent organizations, is evident by the allusions in the press of the day to the “ironclad oath” by which the employe had to agree, on entering the factory, to accept whatever wage the employer might see fit to pay, and had to promise not to join any combination “whereby the work may be impeded or the company’s interest in any work injured.”
Also we find that no general gathering of organized workingmen could take place without the question of the inroad of women into the factories being hotly debated. All the speakers would be agreed that the poorly paid and overworked woman was bringing a very dangerous element into the labor world, but there was not the same unanimity when it came to proposing a remedy. Advice that women should go back into the home was then as now the readiest cure for the evil, for even so early as this the men realized that the underpayment of women meant the underpayment of men, while the employment of women too often meant the dis-employment of men. But it was not long before the more intelligent understood that there was some great general force at work here, which was not to be dealt with nor the resultant evils cured by a resort to primitive conditions. Soon there were bodies of workingmen publicly advocating the organization of women into trade unions as the only rational plan of coping with a thoroughly vicious situation.
Meanwhile such a powerful organ as the _Boston Courier_ went so far as to say that the girls ought to be thankful to be employed at all. If it were not for the poor labor papers of that day we should have little chance of knowing the workers’ side of the story at all.
During the next few years many women’s strikes are recorded among cotton operatives, but most of them, though conducted with spirit and intelligence, seemed to have ended none too happily for the workers. It is nevertheless probable that the possibility that these rebellious ones might strike often acted as a check upon the cotton lords and their mill managers. Indeed the strikes at Lowell, Massachusetts, of 1834 and 1836 involved so large a number of operatives (up to 2,500 girls at one time), and these were so brave and daring in their public demands for the right of personal liberty and just treatment that the entire press of the country gave publicity to the matter, although the orthodox newspapers were mostly shocked at the “wicked misrepresentations” of the ringleaders in this industrial rebellion.
The 1836 strike at the Lowell mills throws a curious light upon the habits of those days. Something analogous to the “living-in” system was in force. In 1825 when the Lowell mills were first opened, the companies who owned the mills provided boarding-houses for their girl operatives, and the boarding-house keepers had in their lease to agree to charge them not more than $1.25 per week. (Their wages are said to have rarely exceeded $2.50 per week.) But in these thirteen years the cost of living had risen, and at this rate for board the boarding-house keepers could no longer make ends meet, and many were ruined. The mill-owners, seeing what desperate plight these women were in, agreed to deduct from the weekly rent a sum equivalent to twelve cents per boarder, and they also authorized the housekeepers to charge each girl twelve cents more. This raised the total income of the housekeepers to practically one dollar and fifty cents per head. As there was no talk of raising wages in proportion, this arrangement was equivalent to a cut of twelve cents per week and the girls rebelled and went out on strike to the number of twenty-five hundred. In all probability, however, it was not only the enforced lessening of their wages, but some of the many irritating conditions as well that always attend any plan of living-in, whether the employe be a mill girl, a department-store clerk or a domestic servant, that goaded the girls on, for we hear of “dictation not only as to what they shall eat and drink and wherewithal they shall be clothed, but when they shall eat, drink and sleep.”
The strikers paraded through the streets of Lowell, singing,
Oh, isn’t it a pity that such a pretty girl as I Should be sent to the factory to pine away and die? Oh! I cannot be a slave,
For I’m so fond of liberty
That I cannot be a slave.
The girls appealed to the memories, still green, of the War of Independence.
“As our fathers resisted unto blood the lordly avarice of the British ministry, so we, their daughters, never will wear the yoke which has been prepared for us.”
With this and many similar appeals they heartened one another. But before the close of October, 1836, the strike was broken and the girls were back at work on the employers’ terms. Still an echo of the struggle is heard in the following month at the Annual Convention of the National Trades Union, where the Committee on Female Labor recommended that “they [the women operatives] should immediately adopt energetic measures, in the construction of societies to support each other.”
Almost every difficulty that the working-woman has to face today had its analogue then. For instance, speeding up: “The factory girls of Amesbury have had a flare-up and turned out because they were told they must tend two looms in future without any advance of wages.”
A pitiful account comes from eastern Pennsylvania, where the cotton industry had by this time a footing. Whole families would be in the mill “save only one small girl to take care of the house and provide the meals.”
Yet the wages of all the members were needed to supply bare wants. The hours in the mills were cruelly long. In the summer, “from five o’clock in the morning until sunset, being fourteen hours and a half, with an intermission of half an hour for breakfast and an hour for dinner, leaving thirteen hours of hard labor.” Out of repeated and vain protests and repeated strikes, perhaps not always in vain, were developed the beginnings of the trade-union movement of Pennsylvania, the men taking the lead. The women, even where admitted to membership in the unions, seem to have taken little part in the ordinary work of the union, as we only hear of them in times of stress and strike.
The women who worked in the cotton mills were massed together by the conditions of their calling, in great groups, and a sense of community of interest would thus, one would think, be more easily established. Women engaged in various branches of sewing were, on the other hand, in much smaller groups, but they were far more widely distributed. One result of this was that meeting together and comparing notes was always difficult and often impossible. Even within the same town, with the imperfect means of transit, with badly made and worst lit streets, one group of workers had little means of knowing whether they were receiving the same or different rates of pay for the same work, or for the same number of work hours. So much sewing has always been done in the homes of the workers that it is a matter of surprise to learn that the very first women’s trade union of which we have any knowledge was formed, probably in some very loose organization, among the tailoresses of New York in the year 1825. Six years later the tailoresses of New York were again clubbed together for self-protection against the inevitable consequences of reduced and inadequate wages. Their secretary, Mrs. Lavinia Waight, must have been a very new woman. She, unreasonable person, was not content with asking better wages for her trade and her sex, but she even wanted the vote for herself and her sisters. Indeed, from the expression she uses, “the duties of legislation,” she perhaps even desired that women should be qualified to sit in the legislature. In this same year, 1831, there was a strike of tailoresses reported to include sixteen hundred women, and they must have remained out several weeks. This was not, like so many, an unorganized strike, but was authorized and managed by the United Tailoresses’ Society, of which we now hear for the first time. We hear of the beginning of many of these short-lived societies, but rarely is there any record of when they went under, or how.
Innumerable organizations of a temporary character existed from time to time in the other large cities, Baltimore and Philadelphia. Philadelphia has the distinguished honor of being the home of Matthew Carey, who was instrumental in starting the first public inquiry into the conditions of working-women, as he was also the first in America to make public protest against the insufficient pay and wretched conditions imposed upon women, who were now entering the wage-earning occupations in considerable numbers. He assisted the sewing-women of all branches to form what was practically a city federation of women’s unions, the first of its kind. One committee was authorized to send to the Secretary of War a protest against the disgracefully low prices paid for army clothing. Matthew Carey was also held responsible, rightly or wrongly, for an uprising in the book-binding establishments of New York.
All this agitation among workers and the general public was having some effect upon the ethical standards of employers, for a meeting of master book-binders of New York disowned those of their number who paid “less than $3 a week.” An occasional word of support and sympathy, too, filters through the daily press. The _Commercial Bulletin_ severely criticized the rates the Secretary of War was paying for his army clothing orders, while the _Public Ledger_ of Philadelphia, speaking of a strike among the women umbrella sewers of New York, commented thus: “In this case we decidedly approve the turn-out. Turning out, if peaceably conducted, is perfectly legal, and often necessary, especially among female laborers.”
The next year we again find Matthew Carey helping the oppressed women. This time it is with a letter and money to support the ladies’ Association of Shoe Binders and Corders of Philadelphia, then on strike. Shoe-binding was a home industry, existing in many of the towns, and open to all the abuses of home-work.
Lynn, Massachusetts, was then and for long after the center of the shoe trade, and the scene of some of the earliest attempts of home-workers to organize.
Nothing in the history of women’s organizations in the last century leaves a more disheartening impression than the want of continuity in the struggle, although there was never a break nor a let-up in the conditions of low wages, interminably long hours, and general poverty of existence which year in and year out were the lot of the wage-earning women in the manufacturing districts.
Although based in every instance upon a common and crying need, the successive attempts of women at organization as a means of improving their industrial condition are absolutely unrelated to one another. Not only so, but it is pathetic to note that the brave women leaders of women in one generation cannot even have known of the existence of their predecessors in the self-same fight. They were not always too well informed as to the conditions of their sister workers in other cities or states, where distance alone severed them. But where time made the gap, where they were separated by the distance of but one lifetime, sometimes by a much shorter period, the severance seems to have been to our way of thinking, strangely complete, and disastrously so. Students had not begun to be interested in the troubles of everyday folk, so there were no records of past occurrences of the same sort that the workers could read. To hunt up in old files of newspapers allusions to former strikes and former agreements is a hard, slow task for the trained student of today; for those girls it was impossible. We have no reason to believe that the names of Lavinia Waight and Louisa Mitchell, the leaders of New York tailoresses in 1831, were known to Sarah Bagley or Huldah Stone, when in 1845 they stirred Lowell. Each of the leaders whose names have come down to us, and all of their unknown and unnamed followers had to take their courage in their hands, think out for themselves the meaning of intolerable conditions, and as best they could feel after the readiest remedies. To these women the very meaning of international or even interstate trade competition must have been unknown. They had every one of them to learn by bitter experience how very useless the best meant laws might be to insure just and humane treatment, if the ideal of an out-of-date, and therefore fictitious, individual personal liberty were allowed to overrule and annul the greatest good of the greatest number.
This second period was essentially a seedtime, a time of lofty ideals and of very idealist philosophy. The writers of that day saw clearly that there was much that was rotten in the State of Denmark, and they wrought hard to find a way out, but they did not realize the complexity of society any more than they recognized the economic basis upon which all our social activities are built. They unquestionably placed overmuch stress upon clearing the ground in patches, literally as well as metaphorically. Hence it was that so many plans for general reform produced so little definite result, except on the one hand setting before the then rising generation a higher standard of social responsibility which was destined deeply to tinge the after conduct and social activities of that generation, and on the other hand much social experimenting upon a small scale which stored up information and experience for the future. For instance the work done in trying out small cooeperative experiments like that of Brook Farm has taught the successors of the first community builders much that could only be learned by practical experience, and not the least important of those lessons has been how not to do it.
The land question, which could have troubled no American when in earlier days he felt himself part proprietor in a new world, was beginning to be a problem to try the mettle of the keenest thinkers and the most eager reformers. And even so early as the beginning of this second period there was to be seen on the social horizon a small cloud, no bigger than a man’s hand, which was to grow and grow till in a few years it was to blot out of sight all other matters of public concern. This was the movement for the abolition of slavery. Till that national anachronism was at least politically and legally cleared out of the way, there was no great amount of public interest or public effort to be spared for any other subject. And yet were there any, on either side of that great question, who guessed that the passing of that even then belated institution was to give rise to and leave in its train problems quite as momentous as the abolition of slavery, and far more tremendous in their scope and range? By these problems we have been faced ever since, and continue to be faced by them today. To grant to any set of people nominal freedom, and deny them economic freedom is only half solving the difficulty. To deny economic freedom to the colored person is in the end to deny it to the white person, too.
The immediate cause which seems to have brought about the downfall of the labor organizations of the first period (1825-1840) was the panic of 1837, and the long financial depression which succeeded. We read, on the other side of the water, of the “Hungry Forties,” and although no such period of famine and profound misery fell to the lot of the people of the United States, as Great Britain and Ireland suffered, the influence of the depression was long and widely felt in the manufacturing districts of the Eastern states. Secondarily the workers were to know of its effects still later, through the invasion of their industrial field by Irish immigrants, starved out by that same depression, and by the potato famine that followed it. These newcomers brought with them very un-American standards of living, and flooded the labor market with labor unskilled and therefore cheaper than the normal native supply. When the year 1845 came it is to be inferred that the worst immediate effects of the financial distress had passed, for from then on the working-women made repeated efforts to improve their condition. Baffled in one direction they would turn in another.
As earlier, there is a long series of local strikes, and another long succession of short-lived local organizations. It is principally in the textile trade that we hear of both strikes and unions, but also among seamstresses and tailoresses, shoemakers and capmakers. New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Boston, Fall River and Lowell all contributed their quota of industrial uprisings among the exasperated and sorely pressed workers, with a sad similarity in the stories.
In a class by themselves, however, were the female labor reform associations, which for some years did excellent work in widely separated cities. These were strictly trade unions, in spite of their somewhat vague name. They seem to have drawn their membership from the workers in the local trades. That of Lowell, perhaps the best known, originated among the mill girls, but admitted other workers. Lowell, as usual, was to the fore in the quality of its women leaders. The first president of the Association was the brilliant and able Sarah G. Bagley. She and other delegates went before the Massachusetts legislative committee in 1845, and gave evidence as to the conditions in the textile mills. This, the first American governmental investigation, was brought about almost solely in response to the petitions of the working-women, who had already secured thousands of signatures of factory operatives to a petition asking for a ten-hour law.
The Lowell Association had their correspondent to the _Voice of Industry_, and also a press committee to take note of and contradict false statements appearing in the papers concerning factory operatives. They had most modern ideas on the value of publicity, and neglected no opportunity of keeping, the workers’ cause well in evidence, whether through “factory tracts,” letters to the papers, speeches or personal correspondence. They boldly attacked legislators who were false to their trust, and in one case, at least, succeeded in influencing an election, helping to secure the defeat of William Schouler, chairman of that legislative committee before which the women delegates had appeared, which they charged with dishonesty in withholding from the legislature all the most important facts brought forward by the trade-union witnesses.
Other female labor reform associations existed about this period in Manchester and Dover, New Hampshire. The first-named was particularly active in securing the passage of the too soon wrecked ten-hour law. In New York a similar body of women workers was organized in 1845 as the Female Industrial Association. The sewing trades in many branches, cap-makers, straw-workers, book-folders and stitchers and lace-makers were among the trades represented. In Philadelphia the tailoresses in 1850 formed an industrial union. It maintained a cooeperative tailoring shop, backed by the support of such cooeperative advocates as George Lippard, John Shedden, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Oakes Smith. In 1853 the Industrial Union published a report of its activities, showing that in two years the business had paid away in wages to tailoresses more than four thousand dollars.
In the men’s conventions of this time a number of women besides the redoubtable Sarah Bagley took an active part, being seated as delegates from their own labor reform associations. At the meeting in 1846 of the New England Workingmen’s Association, for instance, Miss Huldah J. Stone, of Lowell, was elected recording secretary, and Mrs. C.N.M. Quimby was appointed one of the board of six directors. At all the meetings of the New England Congress, which met several times a year, the women’s point of view was well presented by the delegates from the various trades.
The National Industrial Congress, organized first in New York in 1845, and which met yearly for the next ten years, was supposed to stand for all the interests of the workingman and woman, but gave most of its attention to the land question and other subjects of general reform. This scattered the energies of the organizations and weakened their power as trade unions. But in the long anti-slavery agitation, which was just then rising to its height on the eve of the Civil War, even the land question was forgotten, and the voice of the trade unionists, speaking for man or woman, was utterly unheeded.
Imperfect as are the accounts that have come down to us, it is clear that this second generation of trade unionists were educating themselves to more competent methods of handling the industrial problem. The women workers of Pittsburgh cooeperated with the women of New England in trying to obtain from the manufacturers of their respective centers a promise that neither group would work their establishments longer than ten hours a day–this, to meet the ready objection so familiar in our ears still, that the competition of other mills would make the concession in one center ruinous to the manufacturers who should grant it. This was the crowning effort of the Pittsburgh mill-workers to obtain improvement. Strikes for higher wages had failed. Strikes for a ten-hour day had failed. And now it is pitiful to write that even this interstate cooeperation on the part of the girls for relief by a peaceful trade agreement failed, too, the employers falling back upon their “undoubted right” to run their factories as many hours as they pleased.
The women then appealed to the legislatures, and between 1847 and 1851, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Pennsylvania all passed ten-hour laws.[A] But they were not passed simultaneously, which gave the employers in the particular state dealt with, the excuse that under such legislation they could not face interstate competition in their business, and since every law contained a saving clause permitting contracting out by individual employers and employes, all these beneficial acts were so much waste paper. The manufacturers expressed themselves as willing enough to stand for the shorter work-day, but absolutely declined to risk the loss of their business in competing with those rival manufacturers who might take advantage of the “saving clause.”
[Footnote A: In the same year, 1847, a ten-hour law was passed in New Hampshire and in Great Britain, with, however, very different outcome, for in Great Britain the law was enforced, there being no complication of state and national control there.]
For nearly fifty years after this period, the right to overwork and the “right” to be overworked remained untouched by legislative interference. And yet the need for labor legislation, restricting hours, and for uniform federal legislation was as clearly evident then as it is to us today, to meet the industrial needs and to satisfy the undoubted rights of the working folk of the twentieth century.
The organization of labor upon a national basis really began during this period. During the ten years from 1863 to 1873 there existed more than thirty national trade unions. Of these only two, the printers and the cigar-makers, admitted women to their membership. But in addition the women shoemakers had their own national union, the Daughters of St. Crispin. Women’s unions of all sorts were represented in the National Labor Union.
From this body women’s local unions received every possible encouragement. As far as I can understand, the National Labor Union carried on little active work between conventions, but at these gatherings it stood for equal pay for equal work, although, as it appears to us, inconsistently and short-sightedly the delegates refused to incorporate into their resolutions the demand for the ballot as a needful weapon in the hands of women in their strivings after industrial equality. The need for industrial equality had been forced upon the apprehension of men unionists after they had themselves suffered for long years from the undercutting competition of women. That women needed to be strong politically in order that they might be strong industrially was a step beyond these good brothers.
There were also two state labor unions, composed solely of women, the Massachusetts Working-Women’s League, and the Working-Women’s Labor Union for the state of New York.
But most of the organization work among women was still local in character. The New England girl was now practically out of the business, driven out by the still more hardly pushed immigrant. With her departure were lost to the trades she had practiced the remnants of the experience and the education several generations of workers had acquired in trade unionism and trade-union policy and methods.
Still, at intervals and under sore disadvantages the poor newcomers did some fighting on their own account. Although they were immigrants they were of flesh and blood like their predecessors, and they naturally rebelled against the ever-increasing amount of work that was demanded of them. The two looms, formerly complained of, had now increased to six and seven. The piece of cloth that used to be thirty yards long was now forty-two yards, though the price per piece remained the same. But strike after strike was lost. A notable exception was the strike of the Fall River weavers in 1875. It was led by the women weavers, who refused to accept a ten per cent. cut in wages to which the men of the organization (for they were organized) had agreed. The women went out in strike in the bitter month of January, taking the men with them. The leaders selected three mills, and struck against those, keeping the rest of their members at work, in order to have sufficient funds for their purposes. Even so, 3,500 looms and 156,000 spindles were thrown idle, and 3,125 strikers were out. The strike lasted more than two months and was successful.
Progress must have seemed at the time, may even seem to us looking back, to be tantalizingly slow, but far oftener than in earlier days do the annals of trade unionism report, “The strikers won.” Another feature is the ever-increasing interest and sympathy shown in such industrial risings of the oppressed by a certain few among the more fortunate members of society. One strike of cap-makers (men and women), was helped to a successful issue by rich German bankers and German societies.
The account of the condition of women in the sewing trades during the sixties makes appalling reading. The wonder is not that the organizations of seamstresses during those years were few, short-lived, and attended with little success, but that among women so crushed and working at starvation wages any attempt at organization should have been possible at all. A number of circumstances combined to bring their earnings below, far below, the margin of subsistence. It was still the day of pocket-money wages, when girls living at home would take in sewing at prices which afforded them small luxuries, but which cut the remuneration of the woman who had to live by her needle to starvation point.
It was still the period of transition in the introduction of the sewing-machine. The wages earned under these circumstances were incredibly low. The true sweating system with all its dire effects upon the health of the worker, and threatening the very existence of the home, was in full force. The enormous amount of work which was given out in army contracts to supply the needs of the soldiers then on active service in the Civil War, was sublet by contractors at the following rates. The price paid by the Government for the making of a shirt might be eighteen cents. Out of that all the worker would receive would be seven cents. And cases are cited of old women, presumably slow workers, who at these rates could earn but a dollar and a half per week. Even young and strong workers were but little better off. From innumerable cases brought to light $2 and $3 a week seem to have been a common income for a woman. Some even “supported” (Heaven save the mark!) others out of such wretched pittances.
Aurora Phelps, of Boston, a born leader, in 1869, gave evidence that there were then in Boston eight thousand sewing-women, who did not earn over twenty-five cents a day, and that she herself had seen the time when she could not afford to pay for soap and firing to wash her own clothes. She said that she had known a girl to live for a week on a five-cent loaf of bread a day, going from shop to shop in search of the one bit of work she was able to do. For by this time division of work had come in, and the average machine operator was paid as badly as the hand needlewoman.
The circumstance that probably more than any other accentuated this terrible state of affairs was the addition to the ranks of the wage-earners of thousands of “war widows.” With homes broken up and the breadwinner gone, these untrained women took up sewing as the only thing they could do, and so overstocked the labor market that a new “Song of the Shirt” rose from attic to basement in the poorer districts of all the larger cities.
As early as 1864 meetings were held in order to bring pressure upon the officials who had the giving out of the army contracts, to have the work given out direct, and therefore at advanced prices to the worker. Only three months before his death, in January, 1865, these facts reached President Lincoln, and were referred by him to the quartermaster with a request that “he should hereafter manage the supplies of contract work for the Government, made up by women, so as to give them remunerative wages for labor.”
During these years a number of small unions were formed, some as far west as Detroit and Chicago, but in almost every case the union later became a cooeperative society. Some of them, we know, ceased to exist after a few months. Of others the forming of the organization is recorded in some labor paper, and after a while the name drops out, and nothing more is heard of it.
Ten years later, in New York, there was formed a large, and for several years very active association of umbrella-sewers. This organization so impressed Mrs. Patterson, a visiting Englishwoman, that when she returned home, she exerted herself to form unions among working-women and encouraged others to do the same. It was through her persistence that the British Women’s Trade Union League came into existence.
If the conditions in the sewing trades were at this period the very worst that it is possible to imagine, so low that organization from within was impossible, while as yet the public mind was unprepared to accept the alternative of legislative interference with either hours or wages, there were other trades wherein conditions were far more satisfactory, and in which organization had made considerable progress.
The Collar Laundry Workers of Troy, New York, had in 1866 about as bad wages as the sewing-women everywhere, but they were spared the curse of homework, as it was essentially a factory trade. The collars, cuffs and shirts were made and laundered by workers of the same factories. How early the workers organized is not known, but in the year 1866 they had a union so prosperous that they were able to give one thousand dollars from their treasury towards the assistance of the striking ironmolders of Troy, and later on five hundred dollars to help the striking bricklayers of New York. They had in course of time succeeded in raising their own wages from the very low average of two dollars and three dollars per week to a scale ranging from eight dollars to fourteen dollars for different classes of work, although their hours appear to have been very long, from twelve to fourteen hours per day. But the laundresses wanted still more pay, and in May, 1869, they went on strike to the number of four hundred, but after a desperate struggle, in which they were supported by the sympathy of the townspeople, they were beaten, and their splendid union put out of existence.
Miss Kate Mullaney, their leader, was so highly thought of that in 1868 she had been made national organizer of women for the National Labor Union, the first appointment of the kind of which there is any record. She tried to save what she could out of the wreck of the union by forming the Cooeperative Linen, Collar and Cuff Factory, and obtained for it the patronage of the great department store of A.T. Stewart, in Broadway.
The experiences of the women printers have been typical of the difficulties which women have had to face in what is called a man’s trade of the highly organized class. The tragic alternative that is too often offered to women, just as it is offered to any race or class placed at an economic disadvantage, of being kept outside a skilled trade, through the short-sighted policy of the workers in possession, or of entering it by some back door, whether as mere undersellers or as actual strike-breakers, is illustrated in all its phases in the printing trade.
As early as 1856 the Boston Typographical Union seriously considered discharging any member found working with female compositors. This feeling, though not always so bluntly expressed, lasted for many years. It was not singular, therefore, that under these circumstances, employers took advantage of such a situation, and whenever it suited them, employed women. These were not even non-unionists, seeing that as women they were by the men of their own trade judged ineligible for admission to the union. It is believed that women were thus the means of the printers losing many strikes. In 1864 the proprietor of one of the Chicago daily papers boasted that he “placed materials in remote rooms in the city and there secretly instructed girls to set type, and kept them there till they were sufficiently proficient to enter the office, and thus enabled the employer to take a ‘snap judgment’ on his journeymen.”
After this a wiser policy was adopted by the typographical unions. The keener-sighted among their members began not only to adopt a softer tone towards their hardly pressed sisters in toil, but made it clear that what they were really objecting to was the low wage for which women worked.
The first sign of the great change of heart was the action of the “Big Six,” of New York, which undertook all the initial expenses of starting a women’s union. On October 12, 1868, the Women’s Typographical Union No. 1 was organized, with Miss Augusta Lewis as president. Within the next three years women were admitted into the printers’ unions of Chicago, Washington, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Boston. Meantime, the Women’s Typographical No. 1 was growing in numbers and influence, and was evidently backed by the New York men’s union. It obtained national recognition on June 11, 1869, by receiving a charter from the International Typographical Union of North America. It was represented by two delegates at the International Convention held in Cincinnati in 1870. One of these delegates was Miss Lewis herself. She was elected corresponding secretary of the International Union, and served, we are told, with unusual ability and tact. It is less encouraging to have to add, that since her day, no woman has held an international office.
The two contrary views prevailing among men unionists: that of the man who said, “Keep women out at all hazards–out of the union, and therefore out of the best of the trade, but out of the trade, altogether, if possible,” and that of the man who resigned himself to the inevitable and contented himself with urging equal pay, and with insisting upon the women joining the union, were never more sharply contrasted than in the cigar-making trade. We actually find the International Union, which after 1867 by its constitution admitted women, being openly defied in this vital matter by some of its own largest city locals. These were the years during which the trade was undergoing very radical changes. From being a home occupation, or an occupation carried on in quite small establishments, requiring very little capital, it was becoming more and more a factory trade. The levying by the government of an internal revenue tax on cigars, and the introduction of the molding machine, which could be operated by unskilled girl labor, seem to have been the two principal influences tending towards the creation of the big cigar-manufacturing plant.
The national leaders recognized the full gravity of the problem, and met it in a tolerant, rational spirit. Not so many of the local bodies. Baltimore and Cincinnati cigar-makers were particularly bitter, and the “Cincinnati Cigar-makers’ Protective Union was for a time denied affiliation with the International Union on account of its attitude of absolute exclusion towards women.”
In 1887 the Cincinnati secretary (judging from his impatience we wonder if he was a very young man) wrote: “We first used every endeavor to get women into the union, but no one would join, therefore we passed the resolution that if they would not work with us we would work against them; but I think we have taught them a lesson that will serve them another time.” This unhappy spirit Cincinnati maintained for several years. The men were but building up future difficulties for themselves, as is evident from the fact that in Cincinnati itself there were by 1880 several hundred women cigar-makers, and not one of them in a union.
As the Civil War had so profoundly affected the sewing trades, so it was war, although not upon this continent, that added to the difficulties of American cigar-makers. In the Austro-Prussian War, the invading army entered Bohemia and destroyed the Bohemian cigar factories. The workers, who, as far as we know, were mostly women, and skilled women at that, emigrated in thousands to the United States, and landing in New York either took up their trade there or went further afield to other Eastern cities. This happened just about the time that the processes of cigar-making were being subdivided and specialized, so presently a very complicated situation resulted. Finding the control of their trade slipping away from them, the skilled men workers in the New York factories went out on strike, and many of the Bohemian women, being also skilled, followed them, and so it came about that it was American girls upon whom the manufacturers had to depend as strike-breakers. Their reliance was justified. With the aid of these girls, as well as that of men strike-breakers, the employers gained the day.
To what extent even the more intelligent trade-union leaders felt true comradeship for their women co-workers it is difficult to say. The underlying thought may often have been that safety for the man lay in his insisting upon just and even favorable conditions for women. Even under conditions of nominal equality the woman was so often handicapped by her physique, by the difficulty she experienced in obtaining thorough training, and by the additional claims of her home, that the men must have felt they were likely to keep their hold on the best positions anyhow, and perhaps all the more readily with the union exacting identical standards of accomplishment from all workers, while at the same time claiming for all identical standards of wages.
There is certainly something of this idea in the plan outlined by President Strasser of the International Cigar-makers, and he represented the advance guard of his generation, in his annual report in the year 1879.
“We cannot drive the females out of the trade but we can restrict this daily quota of labor through factory laws. No girl under eighteen should be employed more than eight hours per day; all overwork should be prohibited; while married women should be kept out of factories at least six weeks before and six weeks after confinement.”
But it is a man’s way out, after all, and it is the man’s way still. There is the same readiness shown today to save the woman from overwork before and after confinement, although she may be thereby at the same time deprived of the means of support, while there is no hint of any provision for either herself or the baby, not to speak of other children who may be dependent upon her. In many quarters today there is the same willingness to stand for equal pay, but very little anxiety to see that the young girl worker be as well trained as the boy, in order that the girl may be able with reason and justice to demand the same wage from an employer.
WOMEN IN THE KNIGHTS OF LABOR
So little trace is left in the world of organized labor today of that short-lived body, the Knights of Labor, that it might be thought worthy of but slight notice in any general review.
But women have peculiar reason to remember the Knights, and to be grateful to them, for they were the first large national organization to which women were admitted on terms of equality with men, and in the work of the organization itself, they played an active and a notable part.
From the year 1869 till 1878 the Knights of Labor existed as a secret order, having for its aim the improvement of living conditions. Its philosophy and its policy were well expressed in the motto, taken from the maxims of Solon, the Greek lawgiver: “That is the most perfect government in which an injury to one is the concern of all.”
The career of the Knights of Labor, however, as an active force in the community, began with the National Convention of 1878, from which time it made efforts to cover the wage-earning and farming classes, which had to constitute three-fourths of the membership. The organization was formed distinctly upon the industrial and not upon the craft plan. That is, instead of a local branch being confined to members of one trade, the plan was to include representatives of different trades and callings. That the fundamental interests of the wage-earner and the farmer were identical, was not so much stated as taken for granted. In defining eligibility for membership there were certain significant exceptions made; the following, being considered as pursuing distinctly antisocial occupations, were pointedly excluded: dealers in intoxicants, lawyers, bankers, stock-brokers and professional gamblers.
Women were first formally admitted to the order in September, 1881. It is said that Mrs. Terence V. Powderly, wife of the then Grand Master Workman, was the first to join. It is not known that any figures exist showing the number of women who at any one time belonged to the Knights of Labor, but Dr. Andrews estimates the number, about the year 1886, when the order was most influential, at about 50,000. Among this 50,000 were a great variety of trades, but shoe-workers must have predominated, and many of these had received their training in trade unionism among the Daughters of St. Crispin.
The Knights evidently took the view that the woman’s industrial problem must to a certain extent be handled apart from that of the men, and more important still, that it must be handled as a whole. This broad treatment of the subject was shown when at the convention of 1885 it was voted, on the motion of Miss Mary Hannafin, a saleswoman of Philadelphia, that a committee to collect statistics on women’s work be appointed. This committee consisted of Miss Hannafin and Miss Mary Stirling, also of Philadelphia, and Mrs. Lizzie H. Shute, of Haverhill, Massachusetts, who were the only women delegates to the Convention.
At the next convention, held in 1886 in Richmond, Virginia, there were sixteen women delegates, out of a total of six hundred. Mr. Terence V. Powderly, Grand Master Workman, appointed the sixteen women as a committee to receive and consider the report of this previously appointed special committee of three. The result of their deliberations was sufficiently remarkable. They set an example to their sex in taking the free and independent stand they did. For they announced that they had “formed a permanent organization, the object of which will be to investigate the abuses to which our sex is subjected by unscrupulous employers, to agitate the principle which our order teaches of equal pay for equal work and abolition of child labor.” They also recommended that the expenses of this new woman’s department and the expenses of a woman investigator should be borne by the order. The report was adopted and the memorable Woman’s Department of the Knights of Labor was created. Memorable for the purpose and the plan that underlay its foundation, it was also memorable for the character and achievements of the brilliant, able and devoted woman who was chosen as general investigator.
Mrs. Leonora Barry was a young widow with three children. She had tried to earn a living for them in a hosiery mill at Amsterdam, New York. For herself her endeavor to work as a mill hand was singularly unfortunate, for during her first week she earned but sixty-five cents. But if she did not during that week master any of the processes concerned in the making of machine-made stockings, she learned a good deal more than this, a good deal more than she set out to learn. She learned of the insults young girls were obliged to submit to on pain of losing their jobs, and a righteous wrath grew within her at the knowledge. During this hard time also she heard first of the Knights of Labor, and having heard of them, she promptly joined. As she was classified at the 1886 convention as a “machine hand,” it is probable that she had by this time taken up her original trade.
For four years Mrs. Barry did fine work. She combined in a remarkable degree qualities rarely found in the same individual. She followed in no one’s tracks, but planned out her own methods, and carried out a campaign in which she fulfilled the duties of investigator, organizer and public lecturer. This at a time when the means of traveling were far more primitive than they are today; and not in one state alone, for she covered almost all the Eastern half of the country. We know that she went as far west as Leadville, Colorado, because of the touching little story that is told of her visit there. In that town she had founded the Martha Washington Assembly of the Knights of Labor, and when she left she was given a small parcel with the request that she would not open it until she reached home. But, as she tells it herself,
My woman’s curiosity got the better of me, and I opened the package, and found therein a purse which had been carried for fifteen years by Brother Horgan, who was with us last year, and inside of that a little souvenir in the shape of five twenty-dollar gold pieces. You say that I was the instrument through whose means the Martha Washington Assembly was organized. This is partially true, but it is also true that the good and true Knights of Leadville are as much the founder as I am.
She possessed a social vision, and saw the problems of the wrongs of women in relation to the general industrial question, so that in her organizing work she was many-sided. The disputes that she was forever settling, the apathy that she was forever encountering, she dealt with in the tolerant spirit of one to whom these were but incidents in the growth of the labor movement. In dealing with the “little ones” in that movement we hear of her as only patient and helpful and offering words of encouragement, however small the visible results of her efforts might be.
But towards those set in high places she could be intensely scornful, as for instance when she is found appealing to the order itself, asking that “more consideration be given, and more thorough educational measures be adopted on behalf of the working-women of our land, the majority of whom are entirely ignorant of the economic and industrial question, which is to them of vital importance, and they must ever remain so while the selfishness of their brothers in toil is carried to such an extent as I find it to be among those who have sworn to demand equal pay for equal work. Thus far in the history of our order that part of our platform has been but a mockery of the principle intended.”
Mrs. Barry started out to make regular investigations of different trades in which women were employed, in order that she might accurately inform herself and others as to what actual conditions were. But here she received her first serious check. She had no legal authority to enter any establishment where the proprietor objected, and even in other cases, where permission had been given, she discovered afterwards to her dismay that her visits had led to the dismissal of those who had in all innocence given her information, as in the case quoted of Sister Annie Conboy, a worker in a mill, in Auburn, New York. But little was gained by shutting out such a bright and observant woman. Mrs. Barry’s practical knowledge of factory conditions was already wide and her relations with workers of the poorest and most oppressed class so intimate that little that she wanted to know seems to have escaped her, and she was often the channel through which information was furnished to the then newly established state bureaus of labor.
Baffled, however, in the further carrying out of her plans for a thorough, and for that day, nation-wide investigation, she turned her attention mainly to education and organizing, establishing new local unions, helping those already in existence, and trying everywhere to strengthen the spirit of the workers in striving to procure for themselves improved standards.
In her second year of work Mrs. Barry had the assistance of a most able headquarters secretary, Mary O’Reilly, a cotton mill hand from Providence, Rhode Island. During eleven months there were no fewer than three hundred and thirty-seven applications for the presence of the organizer. Out of these Mrs. Barry filled two hundred and thirteen, traveling to nearly a hundred cities and towns, and delivering one hundred public addresses. She was in great demand as a speaker before women’s organizations outside the labor movement, for it was just about that time that women more fortunately placed were beginning to be generally aroused to a shamefaced sense of their responsibility for the hard lot of their poorer sisters. Thus she spoke before the aristocratic Century Club of Philadelphia, and attended the session of the International Women’s Congress held in Washington, D.C., in March and April, 1887.
The wages of but two dollars and fifty cents or three dollars for a week of eighty-four hours; the intolerable sufferings of the women and child wage-earners recorded in her reports make heart-rending reading today, especially when we realize how great in amount and how continuous has been the suffering in all the intervening years. So much publicity, however, and the undaunted spirit and unbroken determination of a certain number of the workers have assuredly had their effect, and some improvements there have been.
Speeding up is, in all probability, worse today than ever. It is difficult to compare wages without making a close investigation in different localities and in many trades, and testing, by a comparison with the cost of living, the real and not merely the money value of wages, but there is a general agreement among authorities that wages on the whole have not kept pace with the workers’ necessary expenditures. But in one respect the worker today is much better off. At the time we are speaking of, the facts of the wrong conditions, the low wages, the long hours, and the many irritating tyrannies the workers had to bear, only rarely reached the public ear. Let us thank God for our muck-rakers. Their stories and their pictures are all the while making people realize that there is such a thing as a common responsibility for the wrongs of individuals.
Here is a managerial economy for you. The girls in a corset factory in Newark, New Jersey, if not inside when the whistle stopped blowing (at seven o’clock apparently) were locked out till half-past seven, and then they were docked two hours for waste power.
In a linen mill in Paterson, New Jersey, we are told how in one branch the women stood on a stone floor with water from a revolving cylinder flying constantly against the breast. They had in the coldest weather to go home with underclothing dripping because they were allowed neither space nor a few moments of time in which to change their clothing.
Mrs. Barry’s work, educating, organizing, and latterly pushing forward protective legislation continued up till her marriage with O.R. Lake, a union printer, in 1890, when she finally withdrew from active participation in the labor movement.
Mrs. Barry could never have been afforded the opportunity even to set out on her mission, had it not been for the support and cooeperation of other women delegates. The leaders in the Knights of Labor were ahead of their time in so freely inviting women to take part in their deliberations. It was at the seventh convention, in 1883, that the first woman delegate appeared. She was Miss Mary Stirling, a shoe-worker from Philadelphia. Miss Kate Dowling, of Rochester, New York, had also been elected, but did not attend. Next year saw two women, Miss Mary Hannafin, saleswoman, also from Philadelphia, and Miss Louisa M. Eaton, of Lynn, probably a shoe-worker. During the preceding year Miss Hannafin had taken an active part in protecting the girls discharged in a lock-out in a Philadelphia shoe factory, not only against the employer, but even against the weakness of some of the men of her own assembly who were practically taking the side of the strike-breakers, by organizing them into a rival assembly. The question came up in the convention for settlement, and the delegates voted for Miss Hannafin in the stand she had taken.
It was upon her initiative, likewise, at the convention in the following year, that the committee was formed to collect statistics of women’s work, and in the year after (1886), it was again Miss Hannafin, the indefatigable, backed by the splendid force of sixteen women delegates, who succeeded in having Mrs. Barry appointed general investigator.
One of the most active and devoted women in the Knights of Labor was Mrs. George Rodgers, then and still of Chicago. For a good many years she had been in a quiet way educating and organizing among the girls in her own neighborhood, and had organized a working-women’s union there. For seven years she attended the state assembly of the Knights of Labor, and was judge of the district court of the organization. But it is by her attendance as one of the sixteen women at the 1886 National Convention, which was held in Richmond, Virginia, that she is best remembered. She registered as “housekeeper” and a housekeeper she must indeed have been, with all her outside interests a busy housemother. There accompanied her to the gathering her baby of two weeks old, the youngest of her twelve children. To this youthful trade unionist, a little girl, the convention voted the highest numbered badge (800), and also presented her with a valuable watch and chain, for use in future years.
One cannot help suspecting that such an unusual representation of women must have been the reward of some special effort, for it was never repeated. Subsequent conventions saw but two or three seated to plead women’s cause. At the 1890 convention, the occasion on which Mrs. Barry sent in her letter of resignation, there was but one woman delegate. She was the remarkable Alzina P. Stevens, originally a mill hand, but at this time a journalist of Toledo, Ohio. The men offered the now vacant post of general investigator to her, but she declined. However, between this period and her too early death, Mrs. Stevens was yet to do notable work for the labor movement.
During the years that the Knights of Labor were active, the women members were not only to be found in the mixed assemblies, but between 1881 and 1886 there are recorded the chartering of no fewer than one hundred and ninety local assemblies composed entirely of women. Even distant centers like Memphis, Little Rock and San Francisco were drawn upon, as well as the manufacturing towns in Ontario, Canada. Besides those formed of workers in separate trades, such as shoe-workers, mill operatives, and garment-workers, there were locals, like the federal labor unions of today, in which those engaged in various occupations would unite together. Some of the women’s locals existed for a good many years, but a large proportion are recorded as having lapsed or suspended after one or two years. Apart from the usual difficulties in holding women’s organizations together, there is no doubt that many locals, both of men and of women, were organized far too hastily, without the members having the least understanding of the first principles of trade unionism, or indeed of any side of the industrial question.
The organizers attempted far too much, and neglected the slow, solid work of preparation, and the no less important follow-up work; this had much to do with the early decline of the entire organization. The women’s end of the movement suffered first and most quickly. From 1890 on, the women’s membership became smaller and smaller, until practical interest by women and for women in the body wholly died out.
But the genuine workers had sown seed of which another movement was to reap the results. The year 1886 was the year of the first meeting of the American Federation of Labor as we know it. With its gradual development, the growth of the modern trade-union movement among women is inextricably bound up.
THE BEGINNINGS OF MODERN ORGANIZATION
As the Knights of Labor declined, the American Federation of Labor was rising to power and influence. It was at first known as the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada, and organized under its present name in 1886. For some time the Knights of Labor and the younger organization exchanged greetings and counsel, and some of the leaders cherished the expectation that the field of effort was large enough to give scope to both. The American Federation of Labor, being a federation of trade unions, kept well in view the strengthening of strictly trade organizations. The Knights, as we have seen, were on the other hand, far more loosely organized, containing many members, both men and women, and even whole assemblies, outside of any trade, and they were therefore inclined to give a large share of their attention to matters of general reform, outside of purely trade-union or labor questions. It was the very largeness of their program which proved in the end a source of weakness, while latterly the activities of the organization became clogged by the burden of a membership with no intelligent understanding of the platform and aims.
But although the absence of adequate restrictions on admission to membership, and the ease of affiliation, not to speak of other reasons, had led to the acceptance of numbers of those who were only nominally interested in trade unionism, it had also permitted the entry of a band of women, not all qualified as wage-workers, but in faith and deed devoted trade unionists, and keenly alive to the necessity of bringing the wage-earning woman into the labor movement. The energies of this group were evidently sadly missed during the early years of the American Federation of Labor.
The present national organization came into existence in 1881, under the style and title of the Federation of Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada. It reorganized at the convention of 1886, and adopted the present name, the American Federation of Labor. It was built up by trade-union members of the skilled trades, and to them trade qualifications and trade autonomy were essential articles of faith. This was a much more solid groundwork upon which to raise a labor movement. But at first it worked none too well for the women, although as the national organizations with women members joined the Federation the women were necessarily taken in, too. Likewise they shared in some, at least, of the benefits and advantages accruing from the linking together of the organized workers in one strong body. But the unions of which the new organization was composed in these early days were principally unions in what were exclusively men’s trades, such as the building and iron trades, mining and so on. In the trades, again, in which women were engaged, they were not in any great numbers to be found in the union of the trade. So the inferior position held by women in the industrial world was therefore inevitably reflected in the Federation. It is true that time after time, in the very earliest conventions, resolutions would be passed recommending the organization of women. But matters went no further.
In 1882 Mrs. Charlotte Smith, president and representative of an organization styled variously the Women’s National Labor League, and the Women’s National Industrial League, presented a memorial to the Convention of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (the Federation’s name at that time), asking for the advice, assistance and cooeperation of labor organizations. She mentioned that in 1880, there were recorded 2,647,157 women as employed in gainful occupations. A favorable resolution followed. At the convention of 1885, she was again present, and was accorded a seat without a vote. On her request again the delegates committed themselves to a resolution favoring the organization of women.
In 1890 Delegate T.J. Morgan, of Chicago, introduced, and the convention passed, a resolution, favoring the submission to Congress of an amendment extending the right of suffrage to women. At this convention appeared the first fully accredited woman delegate, Mrs. Mary Burke, of the Retail Clerks, from Findlay, Ohio. A resolution was introduced and received endorsement, but no action followed. It asked for the placing in the field of a sufficient number of women organizers to labor in behalf of the emancipation of women of the wage-working class.
In 1891 there were present at the annual convention of the American Federation of Labor Mrs. Eva McDonald Valesh and Miss Ida Van Etten. A committee was appointed with Mrs. Valesh as chairman and Miss Van Etten as secretary. They brought in a report that the convention create the office of national organizer, the organizer to be a woman at a salary of twelve hundred dollars a year and expenses, to be appointed the following January, and that the constitution be so amended that the woman organizer have a seat on the Executive Board. The latter suggestion was not acted upon. But Miss Mary E. Kenney of the Bindery Women (now Mrs. Mary Kenney O’Sullivan) was appointed organizer, and held the position for five months. She attended the 1892 convention as a fully accredited delegate. Naturally she could produce no very marked results in that brief period, and the remark is made that her work was of necessity of a pioneer and missionary character rather than one of immediate results–a self-evident commentary. Later women were organizers for brief periods, one being Miss Anna Fitzgerald, of the National Women’s Label League.
As years passed on, and the American Federation of Labor grew by the affiliation of almost all the national trade unions, it became the one acknowledged central national body. Along with the men, such women as were in the organizations came in, too. But it was only as a rare exception that we heard of women delegates, and no woman has ever yet had a seat upon the Executive Board, although women delegates have been appointed upon both special and standing committees.
The responsibility for this must be shared by all. It is partly an outgrowth of the backward state of the women themselves. They are at a disadvantage in their lack of training, their lower wages and their unconsciousness of the benefits of organization; also owing to the fact that such a large number of women are engaged in the unskilled trades that are hardest to organize. On the other hand, neither the national unions, the state and central bodies, nor the local unions have ever realized the value of the women membership they actually have, nor the urgent necessity that exists for organizing all working-women. To their own trade gatherings even, they have rarely admitted women delegates in proportion to the number of women workers. Only now and then, even today, do we find a woman upon the executive board of a national trade union, and when it comes to electing delegates to labor’s yearly national gathering, it is men who are chosen, even in a trade like the garment-workers, in which there is a great preponderance of women.
Of the important international unions with women members there are but two which have a continuous, unbroken history of over fifty years. These are the Typographical Union, dating back to 1850, and the Cigar Makers’ International Union, which was founded in 1864.
Other international bodies, founded since, are:
Boot and Shoe Workers’ Union. 1889 Hotel and Restaurant Employes Union. 1890 Retail Clerks’ International Protective Association. 1890 United Garment Workers of America. 1891 International Brotherhood of Bookbinders. 1892 Tobacco Workers’ International Union. 1895 International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. 1900 Shirt, Waist and Laundry Workers International U’n. 1900 United Textile Workers’ Union. 1901 International Glove Workers’ Union of N. America. 1902
One group of unions, older than any of these, dating back to 1885, are the locals of the hat trimmers. These workers belong to no national organization, and it is only recently that they have been affiliated with the American Federation of Labor. They are not, as might be judged from the title, milliners; they trim and bind men’s hats. They cooeperate with the Panama and Straw Hat Trimmers and Operators. In New York the hat trimmers and the workers in straw are combined into one organization, under the name of the United Felt, Panama and Straw Hat Trimmers’ and Operators’ Union of Greater New York. The Hat Trimmers are almost wholly a women’s organization, and their affairs are controlled almost entirely by women. The various locals cooeperate with and support one another. But in their stage of organization this group of unions closely resembles the local unions, whether of men or women, which existed in so many trades before the day of nation-wide organizations set in. Eventually it must come about that they join the national organization. Outside of New York there are locals in New Jersey, Massachusetts and Connecticut. The parent union is that of Danbury, Connecticut.
The girl hat-trimmers, under the leadership of Melinda Scott, of Newark and New York, have during the last ten years improved both wages and conditions and have besides increased their numbers and aided in forming new locals in other centers. They are known in the annals of organized labor chiefly for the loyalty and devotion they showed during the strike of the Danbury hatters in 1909. They not only refused, to a girl, to go back to work, when that would have broken the strike, but time after time, when money was collected and sent to them, even as large a sum as one thousand dollars, they handed it over to the men’s organizations, feeling that the men, with wives and children dependent upon them, were in even greater need than themselves. “Seeing the larger vision and recognizing the greater need, these young women gave to the mother and the child of their working brothers. Although a small group, there is none whose members have shown a more complete understanding of the inner meaning of trade unionism, or a finer spirit of self-sacrifice in the service of their fellows.”
When we try to estimate the power of a movement, we judge it by its numbers, by its activities, and by its influence upon other movements.
As to the numbers of women trade unionists, we have very imperfect statistics upon which to base any finding. If the statistics kept by the Labor Bureau of the state of New York can be taken as typical of conditions in other parts of the country, and they probably can, the proportion of women unionists has not at all kept pace with the increasing numbers of men organized. In 1894 there were in that state 149,709 men trade unionists, and 7,488 women. In 1902 both had about doubled their numbers–these read: men, 313,592; women, 15,509. By 1908, however, while there were then of men, 363,761, the women had diminished to 10,698. Since then, we have to note a marked change, beginning with 1910, and continuing ever since. In 1913 the unionized men reached 568,726, and the women 78,522. The increase of men in the organized trades of the state during the twelvemonth preceding September 30, 1913, was twenty per cent., while of women it was one hundred and eleven per cent. This enormous increase, more than doubling the entire union strength among women, is mainly due to the successful organization in the garment trades in New York City.
So far there has been no adequate investigation covering the activities of women in the labor world during the last or modern period. We know that after the panic of 1893, which dealt a blow to trade unionism among men, the movement among women was almost at a standstill. We may feel that the international unions have failed to see the light, and have mostly fallen far short of what they might have done in promoting the organization of women workers; but we must acknowledge with thankfulness the fact that they have at least kept alive the tradition of trade unionism among women, and have thus prepared the way for the education and the organization of the women workers by the women workers themselves.
As to legislation, the steady improvement brought about through the limitation of hours, through modern sanitary regulations, and through child-labor laws, has all along been supported by a handful of trade-union women, working especially through the national organizations, in which, as members, they made their influence felt.
There were always brave souls among the women, and chivalrous souls, here and there among the men, and the struggles made to form and keep alive tiny local unions we shall probably never know, for no complete records exist. The only way in which the ground can be even partially covered is by a series of studies in each locality, such as the one made by Miss Lillian Matthews, through her work in San Francisco.
In this connection it must be remembered that those uprisings among women of the last century, were after all local and limited in their effects and range. Most of them bore no relation to national organization of even the trade involved, still less to an all-embracing, national labor organization, such as the American Federation of Labor. In these earlier stages, when organization of both men and women was mainly local, women’s influence, when felt at all, was felt strongly within the locality affected, and it is therefore only there that we hear about it.
Still, twenty-five years ago, the day of national organization had already dawned. To organize a trade on a national scale is at best a slow process, and it naturally takes a much longer time for women to influence and enter into the administrative work of a national union, than of a separate local union, which perhaps they have helped to found. They are therefore too apt to lose touch with the big national union, and even with its local branch in their own city. It is almost like the difference between the small home kitchen, with whose possibilities a woman is familiar, and the great food-producing factory, run on a business scale, whose management seems to her something far-removed and unfamiliar. It was not until 1904, when the National Women’s Trade Union League was formed out of unions with women members, that women workers, as women, can be said to have begun national organization at all. The account of that body is reserved for another chapter.
Meanwhile as instances of the many determined localized efforts among women to raise wages and better conditions, there follow here outlines of the formation of the Working Women’s Society in New York, the successful organization of the Laundry Workers in San Francisco, and of the splendid but defeated struggle of the girls in the packing plants of Chicago.
In 1886 a small body of working-women, of whom Leonora O’Reilly was one, began holding meetings on the. East Side of New York City, to inquire into and talk over bad conditions, and see how they could be remedied. They were shortly joined by some women of position, who saw in this spontaneous effort one promising remedy, at least for some of the gross evils of underpayment, overwork and humiliation suffered by the working-women and girls of New York, in common with those in every industrial center. Among those other women who thus gave their support, and gave it in the truly democratic spirit, were the famous Josephine Shaw Lowell, Mrs. Robert Abbe, Miss Arria Huntingdon and Miss L.S. Perkins, who was the first treasurer of the little group. Mrs. Lowell’s long experience in public work, and her unusual executive ability were of much value at first. The result of the meetings was the formation of the Working Women’s Society. They held their first public meeting on February 2, 1888. In their announcement of principles they declared “the need of a central society, which shall gather together those already devoted to the cause of organization among women, shall collect statistics and publish facts, shall be ready to furnish information and advice, and, above all, shall continue and increase agitation on this subject.” Among their specific objects were “to found trade organizations, where they do not exist, and to encourage and assist existing labor organizations, to the end of increasing wages and shortening hours.” Another object was to promote the passing and the enforcement of laws for the protection of women and children in factories, and yet another the following up of cases of injustice in the shops.
The Working Women’s Society gave very valuable aid in the feather-workers’ strike. Without the Society’s backing the women could never have had their case put before the public as it was. Again, it was through their efforts, chiefly, that the law was passed in 1890, providing for women factory inspectors in the state of New York. It is stated that this was the first law of the kind in the world, and that the British law, passed shortly afterwards, was founded upon its provisions.
Not limiting itself to helping in direct labor organization, and legislation, the Working Women’s Society undertook among the more fortunate classes a campaign of sorely needed education, and made upon them, at the same time, a claim for full and active cooeperation in the battle for industrial justice.
This was done through the foundation of the Consumers’ League of New York, now a branch of the National Consumers’ League, which has done good and faithful service in bringing home to many some sense of the moral responsibility of the purchaser in maintaining oppressive industrial conditions, while, on the other hand it has persistently striven for better standards of labor legislation. It was through the Consumers’ League, and especially through the ability and industry of its notable officer, Josephine Goldmark, that the remarkable mass of information on the toxic effects of fatigue, and the legislation to check overwork already in force in other countries was brought together in such complete form, as to enable Louis Brandeis to successfully defend the ten-hour law for women, first for Oregon, and afterwards for Illinois. The Working Women’s Society did its work at a time when organization for women was even more unpopular than today. It did much to lessen that unpopularity, and to hearten its members for the never-ending struggle. All its agitation told, and prepared the way for the Women’s Trade Union League, which, a decade later, took up the very same task.
In the year 1900, the status of the steam-laundry-workers of San Francisco was about as low as could possibly be imagined. White men and girls had come into the trade about 1888, taking the place of the Chinese, who had been the first laundrymen on the West Coast. Regarding their treatment, Miss Lillian Ruth Matthews writes:
The conditions surrounding the employment of these first white workers were among those survivals from the eighteenth century, which still linger incongruously in our modern industrial organization. The “living-in” system was the order, each laundry providing board and lodging for its employes. The dormitories were wretched places, with four beds in each small room. The food was poor and scanty, and even though the girls worked till midnight or after, no food was allowed after the evening meal at six o’clock. Half-an-hour only was allowed for lunch. Early in the morning, the women were routed out in no gentle manner and by six o’clock the unwholesome breakfast was over, and every one hard at work…. The girls were physically depleted from their hard work and poor nourishment. Their hands were “blistered and puffed, their feet swollen, calloused, and sore.” One girl said, “Many a time I’ve been so tired that I hadn’t the courage to take my clothes off. I’ve thrown myself on the bed and slept like dead until I got so cold and cramped that at two or three in the morning I’d rouse up and undress and crawl into bed, only to crawl out again at half-past five.”
As to wages, under the wretched “living-in” system the girls received but eight dollars and ten dollars a month in money. But even those who lived at home in no instance received more than twenty-five dollars a month, and in many cases widows with children to support would be trying to do their duty by their little ones on seventeen dollars and fifty cents a month.
In the summer of 1900, letters many of them anonymous, were received both by the State Labor Commissioner and by the newspapers. A reporter from the _San Francisco Examiner_ took a job as a laundry-worker, and published appalling accounts of miserable wages, utter slavery as to hours and degrading conditions generally. Even the city ordinance forbidding work after ten at night (!) was found to be flagrantly violated, the girls continually working till midnight, and sometimes till two in the morning.
The first measure of improvement was the passing of a new ordinance, forbidding work after seven in the evening. The workers, however, promptly realized that the more humane regulation was likely to be as ill enforced as the former one had been unless there was a union to see that it was carried out.
About three hundred of the men organized, and applied to the Laundry Workers’ International Union for a charter. The men did not wish to take the women in, but the executive board of the national organization, to their everlasting credit, refused the charter unless the women were taken in as well. Even so, a great many of the women were too frightened to take any steps themselves, as the employers were already threatening with dismissal any who dared to join a union, but the most courageous of the girls, with the help of some of the best of the men resolved to go on. Hannah Mahony, now Mrs. Hannah Nolan, Labor Inspector, took up the difficult task of organizing. So energetic and successful was she, that in sixteen weeks the majority of the girls, as well as the men, had joined the new union. It was all carried out secretly, and only when they felt themselves strong enough did they come out into the open with a demand for a higher wage-scale and shorter hours.
By April 1, 1901, the conditions in the laundry industry were effectually revolutionized. The boarding system was abolished, wages were substantially increased and the working day was shortened; girls who had been receiving $8 and $10 a month were now paid $6 and $10 a week; ten hours was declared to constitute the working day and nine holidays a year were allowed. For overtime the employes were to be paid at the rate of time and a half. An hour was to be taken at noon, and any employe violating this rule was to be fined. The fine was devised as an educative reminder of the new obligation the laborers were under to protect one another, and to raise the standard of the industry upon which they must depend for a living, so fearful was the union that old conditions might creep insidiously back upon workers unaccustomed to independence.
The next step was the nine-hour day, and this in good time was obtained too, but only as the result of the power of the strong, well-managed union.
The union was just five years old, when unheard-of disaster fell on San Francisco, the earthquake and fire. Well indeed did the members stand the test. Like their fellow-unionists, the waitresses, they made such good use of their trade-union solidarity, and showed such courage, wisdom and resource, that the union became even more to the laundry-workers than it had been before this severe trial of its worth. Two-thirds of the steam laundries had been destroyed, likewise the union headquarters. Yet within a week all the camps and bread lines had been visited, and members requested to register at the secretary’s home, and called together to a meeting.
Temporary headquarters were found and opened as a relief station, where members were supplied with clothing and shoes. Within another week the nine laundries that had escaped the fire resumed work, the employes going back under the old agreement.
By the time the next April came round nine of the burnt laundries were rebuilt, all on the most modern scale as to design and fittings, and equipped with the very newest machinery. But still there were only eighteen steam laundries to meet all San Francisco’s needs, and therefore business was very brisk. So in April, 1907, it seemed good to the union leaders to try for better terms when renewing their agreement. When they made their demand for the eight-hour day as well as for increased wages, the proprietors refused, and eleven hundred workers went out, the entire working force of fourteen laundries. The other four laundries, with but two hundred workers altogether, had the old agreement signed up, and kept on working. The strike lasted eleven weeks, and cost the union over $24,000. Meanwhile the Conciliation Committee of the Labor Council, after many conferences and much effort succeeded in arranging a compromise, the working week to be fifty-one hours, with a sliding scale under which the eight-hour day would be reached in April, 1910. Work before seven in the morning was prohibited, all time after five o’clock was considered overtime, and must be paid for at time-and-a-half rate. The passing of the eight-hour law in May, 1911, suggested to some ingenious employers a method of getting behind their own agreement, at least to the extent of utilizing their plant to the utmost. They accordingly proposed to free themselves from any obligation to pay overtime, as long as the eight consecutive hours were not exceeded. The leaders of the union saw the danger lurking under this suggestion, in that it might mean all sorts of irregular hours, or even a two-shift system, involving perpetual night work, and going home from work long distances in the middle of the night. After many months of haggling, the union won its point. All work after five o’clock was to be paid at overtime rate, with the exception of Monday, when the closing time was made six. This because in all laundries there is apt to be delay in starting work on Monday, as hardly any work can be done until the drivers have come in from their first round, with bundles of soiled linen. This arrangement remained in force at time of writing.
As regards wages, Miss Matthews estimates the average increase in the