March is Women’s History Month, a dedicated time to honor the many contributions women have made to improve our society. The history of the Labor Movement was written by and continues to be driven by leadership and courageous actions of women. Looking back at the moments which defined Labor in America, poignant parallels can be drawn between the fierce women leaders of our past and the path we are on today.
The first union of working women in our country was formed in Lowell, Massachusetts. Described by the bosses as “a spirt of evil omen,” the women workers of the Lowell textile mills went on strike in 1834, and again in 1836 to oppose pay cuts and rent hikes. The “Lowell Mill Girls,” as they were known, were fierce organizers and used the mills’ lodging houses to their advantage while building support for strikes and eventually political mobilization efforts – before women had the right to vote in the United States.
The first strike in Lowell in 1834 failed, but the “Mill Girls” persisted by building power on the shop floor and gathering support within their community. When the bosses called for further cuts to pay and rent increases in 1836, the women of Lowell went into action: forming the Factory Girls’ Association and recruiting nearly twice the number of workers to strike as they had just two years prior. 1,500 workers participated in the work stoppage, which combined with massive community support and outrage over the rent hike meant the mills were running at significantly lower capacity. The bosses called off the rent hike as a result.
Lowell was a spark, setting off a combustion which continues to burn almost 200 years later. As the years have gone by, the fire of organizing to build power for working people has been doused with the water of corporate greed. It has been stomped upon by the boots of the wealthy as they buy politicians’ votes. And yet the fire remains because women workers are still not treated equally. Rising from embers to become flames of collective action that continue to forge new chapters in the books of history, women are at the helm of many of the unions and actions grabbing headlines and tearing down barriers to prosperity for all working people.
In many ways, we have come so far since the women of Lowell walked out of the mills on a cold spring morning in 1834. But the power struggle which spurred the women of Lowell to act has not changed. Corporate profits soar on the wings of labor’s toil. The bosses protect the status quo, and only relents to progress at the behest of workers’ voices speaking loudly in unison demanding change. Even then, our opponents are well funded and well connected, but as the women of Lowell show us, we know we can turn the tide of history through collective action, following the lead of women that are being impacted by injustice and through the power of standing together.
In Oregon and across the country, women are leading incredible campaigns and actions to build a fair and just economy for all working people. I’m immensely proud to be able to work with the women who lead unions in Oregon, who run powerful advocacy organizations, and who are in the trenches of our Movement’s fights. From the Oregon Womxn Labor Leaders invoking the image of Rosie the Riveter to call out Fred Meyer for pay inequity last summer to the women on our latest 2020 Election Endorsements list running for office, we are made better by the leadership, courage and fighting spirit of women.
The women of Lowell, like the women pushing the Labor Movement to new heights today, understand that when we stand together and speak against injustice, great things can happen. As Women’s History Month continues, I encourage you to find your own source of inspiration in the history books, in today’s headlines and in your own community.
The Oregon AFL-CIO is a 138,000-member-strong federation of labor unions.