Six Women to Celebrate This Labor Day

Happy Labor Day to everyone but Ivanka Trump! 

Today’s a day to celebrate the labor movement, which we have to thank for giving us the weekend, outlawing child labor, and creating workplace safety laws.

But the popular image of America’s workers tends to be both racialized and gendered. When we think “labor,” we think about construction workers and coal miners more than retail workers and nannies. And the same is often true when we think of workers’ rights organizers and activists. So today, all of us at Feministing are celebrating the ladies (past and present) who led and today lead the fight for workers’ rights.

1. Clara Lemlich

Clara Lemlich inspired the “Uprising of the 20,000,” a massive strike by New York City’s garment workers, who were mostly immigrant, Jewish women. Lemlich worked at a shirtwaist factory where young women worked six to seven days for wages of just $5 a week. Outraged, she began organizing with the young International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) which, ironically, was dominated by men. Many of ILGWU’s male leaders didn’t think women were tough enough to organize – till Lemlich demanded to speak at a workers’ meeting and gave a fiery speech that inspired as many as 40,000 women to walk off their jobs and demand better labor conditions. The strike forced most factories in the city to recognize unions and improve labor conditions.


2. Ai-jen Poo


Ai-jen Poo is the Executive Director of the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance (NDWA), a ground-breaking campaign fighting for better working conditions, rights, and respect for domestic workers.

Many labor laws, including the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), exclude domestic workers. That means that, in most states, domestic workers are denied basic workplace protections like minimum wage, overtime pay, vacation days, and recourse for sexual harassment. Ai-jen Poo’s on a mission to change that. In 2010, because of her organizing, New York state passed a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. Massachusetts, California, and Hawaii have followed suit.



3. Dolores Huerta

Dolores Huerta As the Daily News put it, Dolores Huerta is a “real life superhero.” Huerta founded the National Farm Workers Association with César Chávez in 1962 to organize California’s predominantly Hispanic farmworkers. Farmworkers faced horrific abuse from growers: extremely low pay, no breaks, no protections from hazardous pesticides, and widespread sexual assault. In 1965, Huerta organized the groundbreaking Delano Grape Strike and a massive boycott of California grapes, forcing grape growers to accept contracts that unionized 50,000 California farmworkers. Huerta didn’t stop there: she organized to pass the Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, and she’s been a leading voice for immigrant, workers’, and women’s rights ever since. Dolores, a new documentary about her work, just arrived in theatres – you should check it out!

4. Rose Schneiderman

schneiderman_rallyHave you seen people on Twitter with red roses in their bio? That’s because of Rose Schneiderman, a feminist labor organizer who coined the slogan “Bread and Roses.” Schneiderman was part of the Uprising of 20,000 – yup, the same one kicked off by Clara Lemlich. A year after the Uprising, 146 garment workers died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, an entirely preventable tragedy caused by unsafe working conditions in the infamous sweatshop. The owners had locked all the factories’ doors to prevent workers from taking breaks – and trapped the women inside. Schneiderman was a leading figure in the response, and organized for workplace safety standards, a minimum wage, and an eight-hour workday. Schneiderman became a close associate of President Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt, and influenced major New Deal legislation like the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

5. Cristina Tzintzún

Tzintzun_cristina_bioCristina Tzintzún is the former Executive Director of the Texas Workers Defense Project, the leading campaign for immigrant workers’ rights. Tzintzún founded the WDP (when she was 24!) and took on Texas’ powerful construction industry, which is notorious for putting its workers’ lives at risk. Many Texas immigrants feel their local unions can be hostile to Latino workers – so they turned to the WDP, a workers’ center leading the fight to raise the wage, end on-the-job injuries, and secure paid sick leave. Tzintzún has spearheaded campaigns for half a dozen state and local laws protecting workers. Today, she leads JOLT, the up-and-coming campaign to build Latinx political power, which organized this summer’s powerful protest against Texas’ anti-immigrant SB4 by girls in quinceañera dresses.

6. Frances Perkins

France-PerkinsNo roundup of women labor warriors would be complete without Frances Perkins – FDR’s Labor Secretary and the first woman to ever serve in a Presidential cabinet. Perkins witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, and watched as women workers jumped to their deaths in an attempt to escape the fire. She later described it as “the day the New Deal was born.” Perkins became a leading figure in a Citizen’s Committee that began investigating factory conditions in the wake of the Fire; the Committee’s work became the basis of the most comprehensive state legislation protecting workers ever passed (at the time). As Labor Secretary, Perkins was one of the principal minds behind the New Deal: she led the fight for the NLRA, which grants workers the right to unionize; the FLSA, which created a federal minimum wage and barred child labor; and the Social Security Act, which created unemployment insurance and Social Security for the elderly.

Who are your favorite folks fighting for working women? Let us know in the comments!

Photos via the Zinn Education Project, Francis Perkins Center, Dolores Huerta Foundation, and JOLT.

Sejal Singh is a columnist at Feministing, where she writes about educational equity, labor, and reproductive justice. Sejal is a Policy and Advocacy Coordinator for Know Your IX, a national campaign to end gender-based violence in schools, where she has led several state and federal campaigns for student survivors' civil rights. In the past, Sejal led LGBT rights campaigns for the Center for American Progress. Today, she is a student at Harvard Law School and a frequent speaker on LGBTQ rights and civil rights in schools.

Sejal Singh is a law student and columnist at Feministing, writing about educational equity, labor, and reproductive justice.

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