CFL News
March 30, 2017

A Woman’s Place is in her Union

A Woman’s Place is in her Union

“From the very founding of the organized labor movement, women were there,” said Addie Wyatt in her speech during a special tribute to trade union women at the March 1983 CFL Delegates meeting. Wyatt was the first African-American woman elected International Vice President of a major labor union, the Amalgamated Meat Cutters Union, now the UFCW, “In all of the major struggles and minor struggles of the organized labor movement, even though history doesn’t always record it, women were there.” Wyatt was honored that evening as the second recipient of the CFL’s Woman of the Year award.

Before women earned the right to vote in 1920, the only place they truly had a voice that was equal to men was in their union. Unions have been and continue to be the equalizer that level the playing field for men and women. Collective bargaining agreements genuinely enforce what should be the law of the land through legislation such as the Equal Pay for Equal Work Act of 1963 and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009.

For the women of the labor movement, increasing the strength of working women across the United States meant building protection for their nonunion counterparts. On March 12, 1974, more than 1,200 union women from across the United States convened in Chicago to form the Coalition of Labor Union Women. The new coalition set a major goal to bring an estimated 30 million unorganized women into unions and expand the influence of women within the labor movement. Other goals included child care facilities, a livable minimum wage, improved maternity and pension benefits, and stronger job safety and health standards and enforcement. Olga Madar, a Vice President of United Auto Workers, was elected to head the new coalition, and Wyatt was elected Vice President.

Spanning the generations were women like Lillian Herstein, who helped organize Steelworkers in 1919 and 1937, Mollie Levitas, who was a founder of the Office Employees Union, and Peg Bautsch (SEIU) who pioneered labor in the field of health care. Joyce Miller of the Clothing and Textile Workers union, became the first woman Vice President of the national AFL-CIO and served as the President of the Coalition of Labor Union Women from 1977 to 1993. Jacqueline Vaughn was the first African-American and the first woman to lead the Chicago Teachers Union, the third largest teachers’ union in the United States. As the head of CTU, she led a strike in 1987 that lasted four weeks and resulted in smaller class sizes and pay increases.

When Vaughn received the CFL’s Woman of the Year award in 1985, she told the room of CFL delegates, “May I remind my brothers in the trade union movement of the purpose of the creation of woman – woman was made from the rib of man; she was not created from his head to him, nor from his feet to be stepped upon. She was made from his side to be equal to him; from beneath his arm – to be protected by him; near his heart to be loved by him. In the house of labor, we will work side by side, our brothers, walk side by side in the picket lines, and talk across the table for equal rights. But you must first reach out to touch the most valuable asset the labor movement has… a working woman.”

The labor movement across the United States was enhanced thanks to the skill, courage and dedication of the women who were a part of it.