Happy Labor Day! As you know, the history of Labor Day is filled with the stories and sacrifices of hundreds of thousands of laborers throughout our country’s history. I always considered the holiday to be a chance to reflect on how far we’ve come in regards to creating a system where people have the legal right to fair wages, fair working conditions, and equal opportunities.
Once upon a time, a huge percentage of our population was not allowed these basic rights. It took centuries of courage and hard work to secure them, especially for historically disenfranchised groups like minorities and women. When it comes to women especially, we often remember the heroes who campaigned for the right to vote, run for political office, or serve in the military, but we probably don’t pay enough attention to those who helped women secure their rights in the workplace.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries especially, many women found it hard to find jobs except in factories and manufacturing plants. These women were often forced to work longer hours for far less pay in extremely dangerous working conditions. The culmination of this was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was a company that manufactured blouses. Most of its employees were women who worked 52 hours a week, earning the modern equivalent of $3.20 per hour. One March morning, 146 garment workers—most of them women—died in a fire after the factory’s owners locked the doors to the stairwells and exits, preventing them from escaping.
Fortunately, progress has been achieved thanks to the efforts of countless brave women. Here are just a few who led the charge:
Sarah Bagley was born in 1805 and died in 1883. During her life, she not only became the first female telegrapher, but was also a tireless champion of women’s rights. She got her start while working at a textile mill in Lowell, Massachusetts. After the mill’s management cut the female laborers’ wages while simultaneously increasing work hours, Bagley organized the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association. Campaigning for shorter hours and better conditions (her definition of "shorter" being a Ten-Hour Day), her work prompted the state legislature to hold the first hearings in United States history on working conditions for laborers. After numerous setbacks and defeats, Bagley was able to convince the mill to reduce hours to 11.
Born in 1845, Mullany founded the Collar Laundry Union when she was only 19 years old. Laundry workers—again, mostly female—worked 12 to 14 hour days while constantly exposed to dangerous chemicals and machinery. Mullany’s union was perhaps the first sustained female union in the country, and fought hard for better wages and working conditions. She led her first successful strike when she was only 23 years old.
Mary Harris "Mother" Jones
Jones, born in 1837, was initially an unassuming dressmaker … until the day her husband and four children died of yellow fever. After losing her dress shop in the Great Chicago Fire, she dedicated her life to the labor movement. She traveled around the country, supporting all those fighting for a better life for them and their families. Jones was particularly influential in her crusade to end child labor. In 1903, she organized a group of under-age mineworkers, many who were missing fingers or had other disabilities, in a march from Kensington, Philadelphia to Oyster Bay, New York. The children’s banners read, "We want to go to School and not the mines!" When the United States Senate accused her of being "the grandmother of all agitators," she allegedly replied, "I hope to live long enough to be the great-grandmother of all agitators."
Finally, we return to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and Clara Lemlich. Born in 1886, Lemlich was a Ukrainian Jew who immigrated to New York to escape persecution. Unfortunately, that was not the end of her suffering. After her initial efforts to improve wages and working conditions for women, Lemlich had her ribs broken by gangsters hired by factory employers. Two years later, she lost a cousin in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.
Despite all this, Lemlich was a constant activist. Her most famous act was starting the "Uprising of the 20,000" when 20,000 garment workers went on strike. By the end of the strike, new contracts had been signed at almost every garment factory in New York City, each guaranteeing better working conditions.
As you can see, Labor Day is not just the end of summer vacation. It’s a chance to commemorate the heroic lives of the men and women who battled abuse, corruption, and personal tragedy to secure the basic rights of workers that all of us hold so dear today. Long may we remember their names.
On behalf of all of us at Meyers Financial, I hope you and your family have a happy Labor Day!