Women of labor

By Oregon AFL-CIO president Tom Chamberlain

As we celebrate Women’s History Month during March, it is important to honor the women who forged and led the American labor movement throughout history, and those women who have fought and continue to fight to protect workers’ rights today. They have raised the standards for all of us. Our movement is built on generations of workers standing up to demand change, and each step of the way women have inspired, led and organized so that we can have a better today than our forebears had yesterday.

Today’s labor movement and the rights working people enjoy would not be what they are without the contributions of strong, fearless women. They blazed the trail, and some of the most inspiring acts of courage and determination have come from women fighting for working people to have dignity and a bigger piece of the economic pie. Two examples stand out when I think about women building a better tomorrow for working people:

The forming of the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association in the 1840s was one of the first labor organizations in our country. Led by the intrepid Sarah Bagley, these hardworking women testified fearlessly before the Massachusetts legislature to speak out about dangerous working conditions. We still have a long way to go as a country to ensure workplace safety, but we can look to the women of Lowell as a testament to the power of collective bravery. Workers today do enjoy some things that our not-so-distance ancestors did not, and some of the biggest changes have been because of women leading the charge.

Frances Perkins has inspired me and many others. As Secretary of Labor during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency, she was behind some of the most critical pieces of the New Deal like the Public Works Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps. You can see the impact of her programs at some of Oregon’s landmarks like Timberline Lodge which was built as part of the New Deal. You can also see her legacy in Social Security, because she pushed through the law in 1935 to establish it. History is full of strong women as advocates for the worker, and it’s a topic I encourage you to research, not just during Women’s History Month but year-round.

I have been fortunate to be a witness to history as well, and even more fortunate to call some of the fiercest leaders in our movement my friends. Liz Shuler, an Oregonian, is the first woman and youngest person to hold the position of national AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer. She’s the highest-ranking woman in AFL-CIO history, has done incredible work to bring younger people into our movement, and recently gained national attention for calling on video game developers to treat workers fairly and recognize industry unions.

Liz is part of a tradition in Oregon which I am incredibly proud of, one where women are taking the reins of powerful organizations to make all workers’ lives better. Over the past several years a group called the Oregon Women Labor Leaders (OWLL) formed to foster the growth and development of women as leaders in our state’s movement. Oregon AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Barbara Byrd is very involved in facilitating this emerging group. From supporting each other and women candidates for elected office to testifying on critical legislation, I am so excited to see where this group is headed. I encourage you to be a student of history, to understand how women are the reason unions are thriving today.

I am inspired by everyone involved in OWLL, by seeing my friend Liz Shuler fight every day for workers, and by being a part of this movement that is critically focused on fighting to create an economy where prosperity is universal for all of us. We see far today because we stand on the shoulders of women who forged a path through uncertain terrain.

The Oregon AFL-CIO is a 138,000-member-strong federation of labor unions.

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