4 Women’s Strikes That Were Anything But a Privilege

Kate Aronoff

Poor and working women are no strangers to either strikes or mass actions, having been key forces behind everything from the movement for black lives to the “Day Without Immigrants.” (Bettmann / Contributor)

As this week’s Women’s Strike makes head­lines, there’s a strange idea float­ing around the Inter­net: that strik­ing is for the priv­i­leged, the province of well-off women with the lux­u­ry of being able to claim a vaca­tion day or hire oth­er peo­ple to take care of their chil­dren and loved ones.

In a coun­try with a union den­si­ty just south of 11 per­cent, there are a num­ber of legit­i­mate ques­tions to be raised about the fea­si­bil­i­ty of a strike in 2017. Work­ers’ bar­gain­ing pow­er stands at his­toric lows, and the insti­tu­tions that once sup­port­ed strik­ing work­ers (name­ly, unions) have been erod­ed by a mix of neolib­er­al assault and mar­ket forces. Women, in par­tic­u­lar — inor­di­nate­ly rep­re­sent­ed in low-wage ser­vice work — enjoy per­ilous­ly few pro­tec­tions on the job, and are all too like­ly to face retal­i­a­tion from their boss­es for not show­ing up. Thanks to these and oth­er struc­tur­al fac­tors, what hap­pens will not be a tru­ly mass strike. That’s why orga­niz­ers have out­lined a num­ber of ways to plug into the day’s events, inside and out­side the workplace.

Still, what’s trou­bling about an analy­sis that claims strik­ing-as-priv­i­lege is its near-total dis­con­nec­tion from Amer­i­can labor his­to­ry. Women’s strikes have nev­er been about abdicat[ing] par­ent­ing respon­si­bil­i­ties in sol­i­dar­i­ty,” as Quartzs Mau­reen Shaw put it — per­form­ing the role of a duti­ful, priv­i­leged ally — but about rec­og­niz­ing a shared strug­gle across a work­place, indus­try, class or (in this case) coun­try. Meghan Daum, at the Los Ange­les Times, made an argu­ment sim­i­lar to Shaw’s but still more ill-informed: that women strik­ing would some­how show that they are an acces­so­ry to the econ­o­my, instead of crit­i­cal to its functioning. 

The idea that women should take a day off en masse to make a polit­i­cal point is both self-defeat­ing and vague­ly insult­ing. It’s meant to high­light how cru­cial we are, but its very premise also sug­gests the oppo­site: Women are expend­able,” Daum writes, seem­ing­ly unaware of what a strike is. “‘A Day With­out A Woman’ plays into the idea that we entered the work­force not to sup­port our­selves and our fam­i­lies but to com­bat bore­dom or to boost our self-esteem. For all but a very few afflu­ent women, that’s nev­er been the case.”

As Mag­a­l­ly A. Miran­da Alcazar and Kate D. Grif­fiths explain at The Nation, poor and work­ing women are no strangers to either strikes or mass actions, hav­ing been key forces behind every­thing from the move­ment for black lives to the Day With­out Immi­grants.” Labor his­to­ry is filled with women lead­ers like Dolores Huer­ta and Karen Lewis, who have been none too shy about using mil­i­tant action to secure respect on the job and good con­tracts. More recent­ly, women have pop­u­lat­ed pick­et lines in the Fight for $15 and out­side Wal-Marts.

Strik­ing is not a priv­i­lege,” Alcazar and Grif­fiths con­clude. Priv­i­lege is not hav­ing to strike.”

In dis­cussing the his­tor­i­cal prece­dents for Wednesday’s strike, sev­er­al writ­ers have point­ed to recent actions abroad — like those in Ice­land and Poland — and a 1970 women’s strike for equal­i­ty in the work­place, orga­nized by America’s Nation­al Orga­ni­za­tion for Women. Amer­i­can his­to­ry, how­ev­er, is rife with exam­ples of women strik­ing as work­ers, at con­sid­er­able risk to their lives and liveli­hoods. Fol­low­ing min­ing and the build­ing trades, for instance, the tex­tile indus­try — staffed almost entire­ly by women — was the third most strike-prone indus­try in the coun­try in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry. Here are just a few exam­ples of women who walked off the job:

Atlanta Washerwomen’s Strike, 1881

Less than 20 years after the end of the Civ­il War, half of Atlanta’s black wage earn­ers were women, almost all doing domes­tic work for white house­holds. Of those, many women were employed as laun­dress­es, or wash­er­women,” to whom wealthy, mid­dle class and even poor whites would send their dirty clothes. Wash­er­women, includ­ing many for­mer slaves, made between $4 to $8 a month for long hours of phys­i­cal­ly demand­ing labor.

In the sum­mer of 1881, 20 wash­er­women met and formed the Wash­ing Soci­ety, com­prised entire­ly of African Amer­i­can women. Can­vass­ing fel­low work­ers and gar­ner­ing sup­port from the city’s black church­es, the Society’s ranks swelled from 20 to 3,000 laun­dress­es in just three weeks. Strike meet­ings were held every night, and strik­ers faced arrests and harass­ment from police. Amid com­plaints from white fam­i­lies, the city charged women par­tic­i­pat­ing in the strike with dis­or­der­ly con­duct and quar­rel­ing,” accord­ing to the Atlanta Con­sti­tu­tion, and fined them sums greater than many of their month­ly wages. A defen­dant in one such case was unable to pay, and sen­tenced to work for 40 days on a chain gang. The city also attempt­ed to enforce a tax on any women found to be a par­ty of the Wash­ing Soci­ety. Anec­do­tal evi­dence sug­gests that the washerwomen’s strike also spread to oth­er work­ers. As the Con­sti­tu­tion report­ed at the time, not only the wash­er­women, but the cooks, house ser­vants and nurs­es are ask­ing increases.”

Even­tu­al­ly, the Soci­ety set­tled with the Atlanta City Coun­cil to pay a $25 annu­al licens­ing fee in exchange for high­er rates and more auton­o­my. We can afford to pay these licens­es, and will do it before we will be defeat­ed, and then we will have full con­trol of the city’s wash­ing at our own prices,” the women wrote in a state­ment to May­or Jim Eng­lish. The strike had a chill­ing effect on Atlanta’s white busi­ness and polit­i­cal estab­lish­ment, unsure of whether the city could run with­out black labor. Short­ly after the Washerwomen’s strike, Atlanta’s gov­ern­ment caved to demands from cooks, maids, hotel work­ers and nurs­es for high­er pay.

The Upris­ing of 20,000” (1909)

New York’s Tri­an­gle Shirt­waist Fac­to­ry is per­haps best remem­bered for the hor­rif­ic fire that claimed the lives of 146 work­ers, most of them young immi­grant women. Two years pri­or, how­ev­er, many of the work­ers in that plant par­tic­i­pat­ed in what was one of the country’s biggest labor upris­ings to date. In 1909, Yid­dish-speak­ing women, many in their teens and ear­ly 20s, orches­trat­ed an 11-week gen­er­al strike across Gotham’s 600-shop shirt­waist indus­try, oth­er­wise known as the nee­dle trades.” It all start­ed with a spat of spon­ta­neous strikes in the Leis­er­son Com­pa­ny, the Rosen Broth­ers and at Tri­an­gle, protest­ing work­place safe­ty issues, low wages and ram­pant sex­u­al harass­ment, among oth­er issues. In con­di­tions com­mon through­out the indus­try, Tri­an­gle work­ers worked unin­ter­rupt­ed 14 hour shifts with just one bath­room break, forc­ing many to uri­nate on the fac­to­ry floor.

Work actions, begun in the late sum­mer and fall, car­ried on for sev­er­al months before Local 25 of the Inter­na­tion­al Ladies Gar­ment Work­ers’ Union (ILGWU) began to ques­tion whether mem­bers should return to work. At a packed meet­ing to dis­cuss the strike’s future, work­er-orga­niz­er and Local 25 exec­u­tive com­mit­tee mem­ber Clara Lem­lich made an impas­sioned call: I am a work­ing girl, one of those who are on strike against intol­er­a­ble con­di­tions. I am tired of lis­ten­ing to speak­ers who talk in gen­er­al terms. What we are here to decide is whether we shall or shall not strike. I offer a res­o­lu­tion that a gen­er­al strike be declared — now.” The res­o­lu­tion passed.

In the morn­ing, 15,000 shirt­waist work­ers struck. Over­all, 70 per­cent of strik­ers were women. Nine­ty per­cent were Jew­ish. More than 700 were arrest­ed with­in just one month, 19 of whom were sen­tenced to the work­house. Sev­er­al faced beat­ings by police. As in oth­er strikes, sev­er­al of the most instru­men­tal orga­niz­ers were social­ist women and immi­grants, like Lem­lich and Rose Schneiderman.

Even­tu­al­ly, strik­ers’ resources were exhaust­ed and the upris­ing was called off — though not before win­ning sig­nif­i­cant con­ces­sions. The strike was also a boon for the ILGWU, which, by the end of the strike, count­ed some 85 per­cent of New York shirt­waist mak­ers as mem­bers. Inspired by the events of 1909, sim­i­lar strike actions fol­lowed, even­tu­al­ly ren­der­ing the tex­tile indus­try one of the country’s most union-dense. Beyond those gains, the upris­ing fur­ther cement­ed women’s role in the to-that-point fair­ly con­ser­v­a­tive ILGWU, the lead­er­ship of which would be replaced by social­ists in 1914.

Chica­go Gar­ment Work­ers Strike (1910)

By 1910, Chicago’s tex­tile indus­try was its third largest employ­er, and its largest employ­er of work­ing women. Begin­ning in late Sep­tem­ber with 16 women in the Hart, Schaffn­er and Marx plant—the largest cloth­ing man­u­fac­tur­er in the nation at the time — the strike swelled to 2,000 work­ers in just the first week, includ­ing Yid­dish, Czech, Pol­ish, Ital­ian, Lithuan­ian and Eng­lish speak­ers. As in New York’s Upris­ing the year pri­or, many of the core orga­niz­ers behind the strike were teenagers and social­ists. Nel­lie M. Zeh, who helped orga­nize pick­et lines in var­i­ous Chica­go neigh­bor­hoods, opined about the young women strik­ers in one of the city’s social­ist papers: Sweet and pret­ty is that laugh­ing face, but strength of char­ac­ter is also shown in that it was she who took the lead in the walk-out of an entire shop.”

Per indus­try stan­dard, work­ing con­di­tions in the plant were deplorable. What agi­tat­ed work­ers into declar­ing a strike, though, was the impo­si­tion of a bonus sys­tem,” where­by the piece rate per gar­ment was cut and male super­vi­sors were giv­en more dis­cre­tion over which work­ers did and didn’t get paid. An esti­mat­ed 41,000 work­ers joined in once the strike was endorsed by the Unit­ed Gar­ment Work­ers (UGW), though Chica­go orga­niz­ers crit­i­cized the union for fail­ing to call for a gen­er­al, indus­try-wide strike. City res­i­dents ral­lied in sup­port of strik­ing work­ers, with doc­tors offer­ing free med­ical care and the­aters host­ing ben­e­fit per­for­mances for the union’s strike fund. Chica­go author­i­ties were not as kind: City police and agents hired by the tex­tile com­pa­nies shot two strik­ing work­ers dead, with three oth­er Chicagoans killed as the result of stand-offs between work­ers and their employers.

A set­tle­ment with a major­i­ty of strik­ers was reached in Decem­ber, though a num­ber of strik­ers stayed off the job for sev­er­al months after the UGW with­drew its sup­port, demand­ing fur­ther con­ces­sions. The Chica­go strike laid the ground­work for the cre­ation of the Amal­ga­mat­ed Cloth­ing Work­ers of Amer­i­ca and launched the career of famed labor orga­niz­er Sid­ney Hillman.

Los Ange­les Gar­ment Work­ers Strike (1933)

In the wake of the Great Depres­sion, Los Ange­les dress­mak­ers began a strike that would spread to an esti­mat­ed 2,000 work­ers and 80 man­u­fac­tur­ers. Tex­tile employ­ers rou­tine­ly vio­lat­ed the city’s liv­ing wage ordi­nance, pay­ing work­ers only for the time they spent cut­ting and sewing parcels of gar­ments, which came in at odd inter­vals. Dress­mak­ers worked on hot and poor­ly ven­ti­lat­ed shop floors, and work was often irreg­u­lar, with few guar­an­tees of paid work on a giv­en day.

Three-quar­ters of work­ers in the dress­mak­ing indus­try were Mex­i­can immi­grants, who were also the main orga­niz­ers behind the strike. They were part of the Los Ange­les local of the ILGWU. To that point, Los Angeles’s tex­tile indus­try had been hos­tile to unions, so estab­lish­ing the local in the first place, in a proud­ly open shop” town, was an achieve­ment in its own right. What’s more, the union’s own white, East Coast lead­er­ship had been con­vinced that Mex­i­can gar­ment work­ers were unor­ga­ni­z­able.”

They were proven wrong. Orga­niz­ing in both fac­to­ries and neigh­bor­hoods, in Eng­lish and in Span­ish, rank and file activists began build­ing toward a strike, with demands for union recog­ni­tion, a 35-hour week, high­er wages and oth­er protections.

The three-week strike that ensued when employ­ers refused work­ers’ demands ground the city’s tex­tile indus­try to a halt. More than 3,000 work­ers turned out to a Gar­ment Dis­trict pick­et line on the strike’s first day. Ten­sions quick­ly swelled between strik­ers and their boss­es, who called on the police to jail and intim­i­date their employ­ees. One strik­er-turned-long­time labor orga­niz­er, Ani­ta Andrade Cas­tro, recalled being jailed 37 times, the first time for giv­ing out leaflets. Man­u­fac­tur­ers began cav­ing after two weeks, and the ILGWU end­ed up win­ning sev­er­al of its demands, includ­ing its cen­tral call for col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights.

Kate Aronoff is a Brook­lyn-based jour­nal­ist cov­er­ing cli­mate and U.S. pol­i­tics, and a con­tribut­ing writer at The Inter­cept. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @katearonoff.
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