Almost 60 years after the first union of working women formed in the Lowell Textile Mills (Episode 6) workers were still fighting for fair working conditions and a living wage, however most of the unions were still men only. When the American Federation of Labor (AFL) made it clear that they would not support women workers, the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) was formed in Boston, MA, in 1903, and had branches in both New York and Chicago. 

Although not well known today because it was financially crippled during the Great Depression and was completely gone by 1950, at its peak influence from 1907-1922, the WTUL was able to pass important legislation such as an 8-hour work day, minimum wage, and abolishment of child labor. Its founders and leaders are a veritable who’s who of social reform, champions of workers’ rights, and outspoken suffrage supporters including Jane Addams (Episode 36), Mary Anderson, Margaret Dreier Robins, Rose Schneiderman, Mary Kenny O’Sullivan, Mary McDowell, and Lillian D Wald. There were even upper class women such as Alva Vanderbuilt Belmont, legendary millionaire socialite, and Anna Morgan, daughter of financier J.P. Morgan, and Eleanor Roosevelt, who actively supported the WTUL.

Although most people have heard of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, they might not know that there had been a historic strike for better working conditions at that same factory just the year before. (Side note: a shirtwaist was a popular button-down work blouse for women that could be worn with or without a jacket. Ironically, it was a symbol of both feminism and the new independent woman. It is commonly seen in Gibson Girl illustrations.)

The highly-competitive fast-fashion market of shirtwaists came at a steep price. Factory shifts were 14 hours long with only one break. Workers sometimes had to urinate on the floor at their station if the boss refused to allow the extra bathroom break. The workers were charged for any needles they broke while sewing and some factories charged “rent” on the machines by making the workers pay for the electricity or machine oil that they used. Their staggeringly low wages could be docked for the smallest of errors and their paychecks were commonly reduced to almost nothing.There were scraps of fabric piled on the floor, poor ventilation, and overcrowded cramped conditions. Chain-locked doors were typical. In June of 1909 a fire inspector had sent a letter to the owners of the factory warning of the hazardous conditions and wanted to discuss ways to improve safety; the letter was ignored. 

In September of 1909, the WTLU and their fellow union, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) supported the non-unionized Triangle workers to go on strike for better wages, shorter hours, safer working conditions, and the right to unionize. On November 22, 1909 activist Clara Limlich gave a speech that galvanized garment workers across New York City. Two days later, over twenty thousand workers joined the striking Triangle workers. At the time, it was the largest walk out the city had ever experienced. However, it wasn’t until December when the “mink brigade”, led by Anna Morgan and Alva Vanderbuilt Belmont, took up the cause that the press started paying attention and smaller factories began to meet workers demands including allowing the formation of unions but that’s not what happened at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. 

The owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, were not going to let a bunch of mostly immigrant women and girls tell them how to run their factory or cave to pressure from suffragist socialites. They hired boxers and prostitutes to start fights among the picketers. Police were bribed to only arrest the striking workers who fought back. Then corrupt judges found the workers guilty.  Blanck and Harris formed a counter organization of factory owners but eventually agreed to the demands for better wages and promised improvements of working conditions but would not allow the formation of a union. Even without the coveted union representation, by February of 1910, the workers returned with having gained one of the first major victories for worker’s rights.  

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory brought another victory for workers but this time at a cost of 146 lives. On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out. Most of the horrific deaths of workers were preventable but things like crowded long tables and locked doors, doomed many women to be burnt alive. A faulty fire escape collapsed as workers tried to flee the inferno. The graphic photos of burnt bodies broke the hearts of people across the country. The WTUL was instrumental in pressing for a full investigation of the causes of the fire and advocating for legislative reforms in the workplace. It was the deadliest workplace tragedy in New York history until the attack of September 11, 2001, but from this sadness came new work environment safety standards that are still in place today. 

This week’s song pick
ILGWU "Look for the Union Label" ad from 1981 

#SuffragetteCity100 #SufferingForSuffrage

Episode 49 sources:

More women labor leaders

Back to Top