Review: It’s Time to Write Women Back into Labor History

Women and the American Labor Movement, by Philip Foner,Haymarket Books, 612 pages, $25.

Union women are leading labor forward. You can see it in the flurry of teacher strikes—Los Angeles teachers were the latest to authorize one—and in the September walkout by McDonald’s workers in many major cities, an anti-sexual harassment action linked to the Fight for $15.

Teachers union membership is predominately female, and has been so for decades. In fact, elementary school teaching in the 1970s was a very low-paid “pink-collar ghetto,” wrote noted labor historian Philip Foner in his groundbreaking book, Women and the American Labor Movement—recently reprinted at last, and covering its topic from Jacksonian times to 1982.

Women haven’t always been at home in the labor movement. Women workers struggled through the 19th and 20th centuries to be accepted not just by management but also by male-dominated unions. For decades the AFL did little more than pay lip service to equal pay for equal work. But not so the Industrial Workers of the World, nor later the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

Unlike the AFL, the IWW in the early 20th century employed women as organizers. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was the “rebel girl” of Joe Hill’s song. A socialist and labor radical, she held an executive position in the IWW.

Women were crucial in the great 1936-7 CIO organizing campaigns. This was the era of the wildly successful sit-down strike—before the Supreme Court declared that union tool illegal. In 1937, Foner writes, “there were 477 sit-down strikes, affecting over 300,000 workers.”


Foner lists dozens of female labor notables over the course of two centuries, many unsung.

They took part in the great Lawrence, Massachusetts, textile strike of 1912. “‘A considerable number of boys and girls die within the first two or three years after beginning work,’ wrote a medical examiner studying health conditions in the Lawrence mills. “Thirty six out of every hundred of all men and women who work in the mill die before…they are 25 years of age.’”

Among the most militant strikers were foreign-born women, who rallied around the battle cry, “Better to starve fighting than to starve working.” Their signs read, “We want Bread and Roses Too.” By the time the strike was settled, more than 10,000 workers joined the IWW, 60 percent of them women.


As is well known, women surged into the labor force during World War II. Foner observes that from 1940 to 1945, women in the labor force expanded from 14 million to over 20 million. Most of the female labor union additions came through the CIO, which embraced unskilled workers, unlike the AFL. Most women were in jobs labeled as unskilled and easily excluded from craft union membership.

Day care centers opened for these workers’ children. “Throughout the war [unions] worked for the improvement of daycare facilities,” Foner writes.

Out in front with its progressive approach to women workers stood the United Electrical Workers. Also trailblazing with equal pay contract clauses were the United Rubber Workers and the United Auto Workers. Union leaders stressed that “under fascism, women suffer the most,” while labor leader Walter Reuther spoke about the virtues of “not chaining women to the kitchen sinks.”

Indeed a mass movement of women trade unionists emerged out of the war. Though many women lost their jobs when male veterans returned, there was no “reversion to the pre-war trade union approach to the woman worker.”

But then came the expulsion of “communist-dominated” unions from the CIO. In the early 1950s, Foner writes, “several CIO leaders had voiced the view that pressing for the unionization of women might subject them to the charge of being communist dominated.” Of the eleven progressive unions expelled, Foner notes, several were pace-setters for women, so this was a setback for women in the labor movement.




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Foner also covers New York City’s hospital strikes in the 1950s and ’60s, when organizers realized that to bring in African American and Hispanic women hospital workers, they needed a coalition with the civil rights movement.

These hospital workers received poverty wages until 1968, when Local 1199, Retail Drug Employees, had a “spectacular success in winning a $100 per week minimum for non-professional voluntary hospital workers.” The union started a friendship with Martin Luther King Jr., who called 1199 “my favorite union.”

By 1965, Foner writes, 1199 had achieved much: “Hospital union membership had grown from five or six thousand in 1959 to thirty thousand. Wages had more than doubled, and health and medical coverage for workers and their families had been won in union contracts.”


Also covered in this invaluable book is the role of female workers in La Huelga—the great strike and boycott by farmworkers, which began in 1965 and led to recognition of their union.

It started in California with the strike against the Delano growers. “When it was over, five years later, unionization had come for farm laborers.” There followed the boycott in 1970, and in 1971-2 the end of some of the anti-woman bias in the fields.

The first woman organizer working for the union out in the fields was Jessie Lopez de la Cruz, who, as told to Ellen Cantarow, recalled: “One night in 1962 there was a knock at the door and there were three men. One of them was Cesar Chavez. And then next thing I knew they were sitting around our table and talking about a union…Cesar said ‘The women have to be involved. They’re the ones working out in the fields with their husbands. If you can take the women out to the fields, you can certainly take them to meetings.’ So I sat up straight and said to myself ‘That’s what I want!’”

During the strike—whose picket lines the Teamsters crossed—“women were attacked by men wielding 2x4 boards, hoping to provoke a riot, while fifty policeman were waiting with patrol wagons to arrest the women if they fought back.” According to Foner, in 1973, “while picketing growers who had signed with the Teamsters, Juan de la Cruz was killed by a rifle fired into the picket line from a truck.”


Toward the end, this book focuses on 1970s textile strikes in the South (back when there still was a textile industry in the South), including the one featured in the film Norma Rae. There were many women in these textile workforces.

The Oneita strike stands out. As one reporter wrote then: “Black women were the vast majority of the strikers, and black women are the angriest, most militant and courageous in the working class, because they felt the lash of exploitation and racist abuse even more than black men.”

In this strike, the AFL-CIO boycotted all Oneita products “under the K-Mart, J.C. Penney, Sears and Montgomery Ward labels.” After six months, the strikers signed a contract, “the first union contract won in the South in over a decade.”

The book ends in 1982, by which time Foner observes a worrying decline in union membership. Things have only deteriorated since then, to the point where one can only wonder what an old labor supporter like Philip Foner would say about the Supreme Court’s Janus decision and that other feature of contemporary life, the gig economy. The answer is certainly: nothing good, so every reason to unionize.

Eve Ottenberg is a longtime teacher’s union member, whose most recent novel Hometown U.S.A. is about life in fracking country. Follow her at @OttenbergEve.

Video: Bev Grant's classic song "We Were There" was written as the theme song for a multi-media show about women's labor history.