Women's Trade Union League

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WOMEN'S TRADE UNION LEAGUE, an organization of working-class and middle-class women (1903– 1950) dedicated to improving the lives of America's working women. The Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) was founded in Boston in 1903 at a meeting of the American Federation of Labor, when it became clear that American labor had no intention of organizing America's women into trade unions. A British version of the organization had been in existence since 1873. The American group was the brainchild of labor organizer Mary Kenny O'Sullivan. It combined middle-class reformers and social workers such as Lillian Wald and Jane Addams, called "allies," and working-class activists such as Leonora O'Reilly. While national, it was active in key urban areas such as New York, Boston, and Chicago.

The organization's twin focus was on (1) aiding trade unions and striking women workers and (2) lobbying for "protective labor legislation." It was at its height from 1907 to 1922 under the direction of Margaret Dreier Robins. During the bitter New York garment worker strikes of 1909 through 1913, the WTUL proved to be a major source of support for the strikers. WTUL members walked picket lines, organized support rallies, provided much needed public relations, raised strike funds and bail, and helped shape public opinion in the strikers' favor. In 1911, after the terrible Triangle Shirtwaist Fire killed 146 garment workers, the WTUL was at the forefront of reformers demanding stepped-up governmental responsibility over the workplace. When New York State created the Factory Investigating Committee in 1912, WTUL representative Mary Dreier was one of the commissioners.

After 1912, the WTUL branched out to Iowa, New Jersey, and Ohio to aid women strikers and investigate working conditions. The thrust of their attention after the garment strikes, however, was on legislation: an eight-hour workday, workplace safety, and minimum wages for women workers. Their success in fourteen states won them many supporters among women workers and reform circles but caused concern for the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Samuel Gompers, the AFL president, saw legislation as a threat to the core of labor: collective bargaining. Gompers saw politics as a blind alley for labor. This conflict can be seen in the uneasy relationship between trade union women and the WTUL. Labor leaders such as Rose Schneiderman and Pauline Newman spent years with the WTUL, the former as N.Y. President, but they never felt completely at home among the reformers.

Just prior to World War I, the WTUL began to actively campaign for woman's suffrage in the belief that if working women had the vote they could demand laws to protect them. During World War I the WTUL worked with the Department of Labor as more and more women joined the workforce. After the war, as returning soldiers replaced the women workers and the AFL returned to its "family wage" philosophy (husbands need to earn enough to keep their wives at home), the relationship between the WTUL and the AFL was strained.

Starting in the 1920s, the WTUL began an educational effort that had profound effects. Starting with the summer school for women workers at Bryn Mawr (and spreading to other women's colleges), the WTUL educated and trained a whole generation of women union activists.

During the New Deal years, with WTUL member Eleanor Roosevelt, the league focused its attention on retaining the gains they had made and aiding women during the depression. They slowly became less involved with organizing and more focused on legislation. They were active in the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act and Social Security. But they were never able to repair their relationship with organized labor. They remained neutral during the bitter labor rivalry between the AFL and the newly formed industrial unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). After World War II they drifted and, lacking resources and active members, closed their doors in 1950.


Davis, Allen. "The Women's Trade Union League: Origins and Organization." Labor History 5, no. 1 (Winter 1964).

Dye, Nancy Schrom. As Equals and as Sisters. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1980.

Harris, Alice Kessler. Out to Work. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Orleck, Annalese. Common Sense and a Little Fire. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

Richard AGreenwald

See alsoLabor ; Suffrage: Woman's Suffrage ; Trade Unions .

Women's Trade Union League (WTUL)

views updated May 09 2018


Founded in 1903, the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) sought to represent the cause of working-class women to middle- and upper-class reformers. Women were openly excluded from other labor organizations, which maintained that women simply did not have a place in the workforce. Male laborers were wary that including women in the labor cause would lower their own wages, and most felt that the woman's place was in the home. Whatever the prevailing sentiment among working-class men, the fact was that women were in the workplace in numbers. In 1903, the year the WTUL organized, there were 6.3 million women in the American workforce. The organization sought to secure state and federal legislation to protect female laborers, sponsor educational programs, and campaign for woman suffrage (the right to vote). By 1906 Jewish cap-maker Rose Schneiderman (18821972) rose to a position of leadership within the WUTL. In 1909, the Schneiderman-led WTUL joined forces with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and staged a strike against sweatshops (exploitative garment factories) in New York City. After a three-month strike, called the "Uprising of the 20,000," tens of thousands of garment workers won wage increases, shorter hours, and somewhat safer work conditions. In 1911 Schneiderman was among those who turned out to join an April 5 procession to mourn the victims of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. One hundred and forty-six workers, most of them Jewish immigrant women, had perished in the March 25, blaze in a building that failed to meet required safety standards. In the wake of the tragedy, Schneiderman resolved that workers would never again be forced to risk their lives to earn a living. Public outrage was now on the side of the movement to increase worker safety. The WUTL eventually became dominated by middle-class leaders who steered the organization away from union activities (including strikes), alienating its working-class membership. In the early 1920s the organization rallied against passage of an equal rights amendment to the U.S. Constitution, asserting that women workers needed protection from exploitation, not equal opportunities. By 1930 the WTUL had dissolved.

See also: American Federation of Labor (AFL), Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

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