Black Women: A Formidable Force In The Labor Movement

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Clayola Brown 

President, A. Philip Randolph Institute

Throughout the history of the labor movement and the history of the civil rights movement—both required solidarity, racial diversity, large numbers, and, most of all –persistent organizing.

The earliest recorded strike occurred in 1768 when New York journeymen tailors protested a wage reduction. The formation of the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers (shoemakers) in Philadelphia in 1794 marks the beginning of sustained trade union organization among American workers. Black leaders, activists, and organizers formed the backbone of the U.S. labor movement. Even when the forces of structural racism and segregation sought to stifle their contributions, their resolve to fight for workers’ rights alongside the cause of civil rights remained unshakable.

 Black women, in particular, have played an enormous role in the movement’s legacy and development. They have proven to be determined and formidable organizers.

More than 80 years after the formation of sustained trade union organizations, in the Summer of 1881, black laundresses took on Atlanta’s business and political establishment and gained so much support they threatened to call a general strike, which would have shut the city down. 

In July 1881, 20 laundresses met to form a trade organization, the Washing Society. They sought higher pay, respect and autonomy over their work and established a uniform rate at $1 per dozen pounds of wash. The Washing Society, or “Washing Amazons,” as their opponents called them, established door-to-door canvassing to widen their membership, urging laundresses across the city to join or honor the strike. They also involved white laundresses, who were less than 2 percent of laundresses in the city—an extraordinary sign of interracial solidarity for the time. In three weeks, the Washing Society grew from 20 to 3,000 strikers. 

Black women have been essential leaders across social justice movements, and the labor movement is no exception. Despite historical segregation that kept women and Black workers out of some of the most powerful labor unions in the United States, Black women have led past and present struggles for economic justice – even as their contributions were often ignored by the history books.

Lucy Parsons

Lucy Parsons was known by the Chicago police department as “more dangerous than a thousand rioters”, Lucy Parsons. Parsons was a dedicated anarchist and labor organizer who struggled throughout her life for freedom and against state repression through the establishment of some of the most storied institutions in U.S. labor history.  Parsons played a significant role in the fight for the eight-hour workday, the organization of the first May Day, the founding of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), and the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW).  The causes to which she dedicated her life are central to the collective struggles of so many Black workers during the near-century in which she was alive and continue to be issues of critical concern for Black workers today: economic freedom, autonomy and dignity among the poor. 

Hattie Canty

Hattie Canty was one of the greatest strike leaders in U.S. history.  Canty was largely a stay-at-home Mother who raised her family’s ten children; however, after her husband succumbed to lung cancer, 41-year-old Canty took a maid’s job at the Maxim – a hotel unionized with Las Vegas Culinary Workers Union Local 226. The union job afforded Canty health benefits, a pension, and wages far above the minimum wage. She spent every one of her off-days walking a picket line when there was a picket line to walk. In May 1990, the membership of the union elected Canty president – the first woman president of the local. Under her leadership, the Local engaged in what became one of the longest strikes in US History, which lasted 6 years, 4 months and ten days between 1991 and 1998.  During that time, the union maintained a strike line 24 hours a day, seven days a week and no striker ever crossed the picket line. The strike ended in victory when a new businessman bought the hotel and promised to restore the workers to their jobs, honor the union contract, and provide back pay for the workers. 

Although Lucy Parsons and Hattie Canty organized in radically different settings – neither shied away from the people who matter most – the individuals doing difficult and dirty work, the lowest paid and the least respected by others in society. Both of these women, like the Atlanta Washerwomen, were giants in their time and place. Their history is important, because Workers Rights have not changed.  

In a September 5, 2022 interview in the Nation magazine, Vice President Kamala Harris recalled her experience as a youth on picket lines that she joined with her activist mother. She explained why it is so vital to eliminate barriers to organizing workers and bargaining contracts. As the leader of the Biden administration’s concerted effort to remove barriers to organizing workers and bargaining contracts, the Vice President is determined to clear the way for a dramatic renewal of America’s labor movement. 

Workers’ Rights are essential for a real democracy and an inclusive economy. Today, Black Women in their various leadership roles continue to support and to shape the values of Economic Justice & Workers Rights. Collectively, they remain a formidable force in the Labor Movement.