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Summary Article: Women's Trade Union League from Workers in America: A Historical Encyclopedia

The Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) was a cross-class organization designed to oppose sweatshops and campaign for shorter hours, higher wages, and better working conditions for workingwomen. It was founded in Boston in 1903 and partially filled the void in women's labor organizing left by the decline of the Knights of Labor, as most unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) either excluded women altogether or showed little interest in bringing them into the organized labor fold. The American WTUL was patterned after an eponymous group founded in England in 1874. It drew inspiration from a 1902 boycotts by housewives of kosher butchers. William English Walling, a New York City settlement-house worker, traveled to England to observe WTUL operations. Upon returning to the United States, Walling drew up plans for an American WTUL with the assistance of Mary Kenney O'Sullivan and Samuel Gompers, though future AFL support for the WTUL was minimal.

Many of the early WTUL leaders were drawn from the Progressive Era settlement-house movement and included figures such as Lillian Wald, Agnes Nestor, Vida Scudder, Leonora O'Reilly, and Jane Addams. The WTUL hoped to promote the cause of women trade unionists and to convince women workers to join unions. Because its leadership relied heavily on sympathetic middle-class women who were not wage-earners, however, some working people criticized its structure and tactics. Nonetheless, the WTUL grew under the dynamic leadership of Margaret Dreier Robins, who served as president from 1906 until 1922. The organization played an important role in the 1909 Uprising of the 20,000 by raising money to support strikers, urging boycotts of firms being struck, and organizing mass protests. That labor action was said to be the largest strike of women in U.S. labor history to that point. The WTUL also investigated the Triangle Factory fire of 1911 and used the tragedy to build support for factory safety reforms and other WTUL causes. It also supported the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) during the 1912 Lawrence textile strike.

The WTUL's support for the IWW won it few friends in the AFL, which also battled the IWW in Lawrence. Robins and the WTUL often found themselves amidst controversy. Among the sources of such controversy was the WTUL's support for protective labor legislation that gave women both a minimum wage and eight-hour workday. It hailed these advances as true labor reforms, but because they applied only to women, feminists decried the essentialist implications of such legislation. For its part, the AFL felt that the WTUL had undermined its own collective bargaining efforts. The WTUL's willingness to work with radicals, moderate labor unions, and the middle class often earned it the distrust of all camps. Thus the WTUL enjoyed good relations with some unions—notably the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America—but was coolly received by most AFL trades, while the ideological gap between the IWW and most middle-class reformers was simply too wide for most individuals to cross.

The WTUL was more successful in garnering interclass support for the women's suffrage movement. It was particularly effective in winning working-class support for the National American Woman Suffrage Association. By the 1920s, much of the WTUL's work had become more political in nature, with the WTUL continuing to lobby for protective labor legislation for women. The election of Franklin Roosevelt to the U.S. presidency in 1932 gave the WTUL a boost, as First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was a long-time WTUL member. The WTUL's Rose Schneiderman gained access to the White House and was said to have influenced several pieces of New Deal legislation, including the Social Security Act. The WTUL was less successful in its campaign to remove laws and customs barring married women from working during the Great Depression.

The WTUL's influence waned as World War II approached, though it continued to offer classes for working women in everything from history to vocational training. It officially dissolved in 1950, but it should be considered the forerunner of groups such as the Coalition of Labor Union Women and various women's caucuses within both politics and the organized labor movement.

Suggested Reading
  • Foner, Philip , Women and the American Labor Movement, 2 vols., 1980;.
  • Kessler-Harris, Alice , Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States, 1982;.
  • Orleck, Annelise , Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and Working-Class Politics in the United States 1900-1965, 1995.
Copyright 2013 by Robert E. Weir

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