by Ellen Bravo
More than a century ago, thousands of women garment workers went on strike in New York City. What they could not win on their own, they aimed to do together through their union – win relief from working way too many hours at way too little pay with zero safety protections. Their struggle inspired people all over the world. In their honor, a conference of European women two years later created International Women’s Day, celebrated on March 8.
The strikers won agreements at many factories. One holdout was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. On March 25, 1911, the factory went up in flames. Many of the workers were trapped inside thanks to a common practice by employers of locking the exit until the end of the shift. The 146 who died that day were mostly women, many children, almost all immigrants. Dozens of them jumped out of windows to escape being burned alive.
Among the horrified witnesses to that fire was a woman named Francis Perkins, who happened to be at a friend’s house nearby and heard the fire trucks. She became involved in efforts that led to a Factory Investigating Committee and establishment of the first-ever industry regulations.
Here was the response from the industry: “The experience of the past proves conclusively that the best government is the least possible government,” said Terrance McGuire, president of Real Estate Board of NY City. “[This] new law would drive manufacturers out of the city and state.”
What were these burdens imposed by government? For the first time, factories had to allow inspections, have fire escapes, and not lock the workers in the building while they did their job.
As a result of Francis Perkins’ work in New York, FDR chose her to be his Secretary of Labor, the first woman in that position. Roosevelt understood that this kind of work is just what the Department of Labor is supposed to do – establish and strengthen and enforce protections for workers.
This March 8, women across the United States will go on strike again – by refusing to do their paid or unpaid jobs, or refraining from spending money or simply by wearing red in solidarity. Among them will be hundreds who’ll gather at the Department of Labor to celebrate Women Workers Rising. The group will include domestic workers, restaurant workers, Walmart workers, nurses, garment workers, union members, and representatives of coalitions from the Family Values @ Work network.
Under the Obama administration, the Department of Labor lived up to its mission of “promoting the welfare of the wage earners…; advancing opportunities for profitable employment, and ensuring work-related benefits and rights.” Among other things, they funded research in the states to advance paid family and medical leave programs. They expanded paid sick days protections to federal contract employees. Secretary Tom Perez launched a Lead on Leave tour to promote campaigns in cities and states working to win such protections. The Wage and Hour Division emphasized enforcement.
The Trump administration now threatens to dismantle all of these efforts.
That’s why our coalition of activists from women’s rights, workers’ rights and labor rights groups, unions, and artists are gathering at that building.
We’ll highlight the stories, voices and demands of women workers on International Women’s Day to end workplace violence and harassment, and promote pay equity, one fair living wage, paid leave and labor rights at work.
Representatives of Family Values @ Work coalitions will perform a skit featuring stories of members who lack paid sick days or paid family and medical leave – and of others who have won them through campaigns built by broad and diverse coalitions. I’ll be among the speakers with Safiyyah A. Muhammad of the NJ Time to Care Coalition. Safiyyah has lived on both sides of these issues.
The story of our movement shows what happens when Women Workers Rise. We’ll call on everyone to rise with us.