When a fire broke out on the ninth floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York in 1911, 146 garment workers died—123 of whom were women. In the wake of one of the deadliest workplace tragedies in American history, it was the women of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) who worked on the front lines to help mold our modern day workplace. It is also a little-known fact that a woman—Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins—shaped the New Deal and supported the 40-hour work week, a minimum wage, and workers compensation.
Women have been at the front of the labor rights movement since the very beginning. Eva Valesh was a journalist in Minnesota and labor rights activist. She helped organize other Minnesota women who worked in the garment industry, and eventually reported on the working conditions of Minnesota garment workers. In 1888, Eva published an exposé in the St. Paul Globe about how terribly women were being treated in garment factories in the Twin Cities. This piece, along with her activism, helped Minnesotan garment workers win better working conditions, higher pay, and better safety regulations.
And women today are still shaping and invigorating the fight for working people.
Take Saru Jayaraman, mother of two and co-founder of Restaurant Opportunity Centers (ROC) United, a group organizing restaurant workers across the country. Saru’s priorities for restaurant workers are the same as those she holds for herself—achieving a work-life balance, for example. This means the ability to work, make enough money to support your children, and also get the flexibility and time you need to be with them when they are sick. That’s why two of ROC’s priorities are paid sick leave and establishing one fair minimum wage (this means eliminating the tipped minimum wage, which currently sits at just $2.13 nationally). In fact, 70 percent of tipped workers in America are women who work at chain restaurants like Olive Garden, Red Lobster, and IHOP.
Or take Naquasia LeGrand, who helped launch the first fast-food worker’s strike in 2012. With Naquasia’s help, the campaign became known as the “Fight for $15,” and swept the nation with its “take it to the streets” mentality. So far, New York City, Seattle, Baltimore, Washington, DC, and several other cities have increased the minimum wage to $15 an hour. But the Fight for $15 won’t stop there, as thousands of workers are continuing to organize in hundreds of cities.
And finally, there’s the women janitors leading the ¡Ya Basta! (“Enough!”) Movement in California in order to fight sexual harassment and rape in the workplace. These brave women have come forward to share their stories of assault on the job and lead the fight to protect their fellow workers from this kind of violence. Other strong women are joining their cause. California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez has introduced Assembly Bill 1978, which would establish janitorial workforce protections against sexual assault. And working with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), these women have also made sexual assault and rape prevention a centerpiece of contract negotiations now taking place across California. SEIU is headed up nationally by—you guessed it—a woman. Mary Kay Henry became the first women elected to run this national union in 2010.
In fact, women leadership at major labor organizations has gone up in recent decades. Women have leading roles at major unions like the American Federation of Teachers and AFL-CIO, in addition to SEIU. And they are expanding the boundaries of the labor movement by leading powerful alternative labor organizations like ROC United, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, Jobs With Justice, and LAANE.
The percent of female union membership has risen as well. In 2014, more than 45 percent of all union members were women, a share that jumped from just one-third in 1984, according to a report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. We often talk about the union difference for women—specifically, that women in unions are more likely to remain in their occupation, receive higher wages, and have access to better health care and pension plans. Additionally, the gap in pay between men and women is smaller in unions than it is for those in non-union workplaces. But women are also making a difference for unions and labor generally as they take us forward with new perspective on what it means to fight for working families and bring new energy to that fight. Given this, one thing is clear. In the fight to protect working families and raise up workers’ voices, we need to cultivate more women leaders and make sure we give them the credit they are due.
Every March we recognize everything women have done for the United States, and for the world. This Women’s History Month is especially important—it comes in the wake of the election of a misogynist over the first woman candidate of a major political party.
But as we’ve seen—from the historic marches that filled the streets of Washington after the inauguration, to this month’s A Day Without Women strike—women are not sitting down and staying silent. They’re doing the opposite. And it’s working.
There isn’t enough space in one essay to do justice to all the women who have fought for a better future, but even a cursory look at how women have been fighting for working families is plenty to inspire.
Let’s honor these women.
Rep. Keith Ellison is the congressman from Minnesota’s Fifth District.