The Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) was an early twentieth-century organization founded in Boston by labor leaders who sought to improve wages, benefits, and working conditions for women through unionization, political reform, and other forms of activism. Unlike a traditional labor union, which organizes workers in a particular trade, industry, or factory, the WTUL included working-class women in all fields, as well as middle- and upper-class women reformers who were not part of the labor force. While the WTUL did advocate work stoppages and other traditional tactics of organized labor in order to gain concessions from employers, the group mostly focused on drawing attention to the need for legislative reforms that would combat the difficult working conditions and low wages of female workers. Although the WTUL helped reduce the exploitation of working women in the United States, it disbanded at midcentury as other organizations emerged to push for economic, social, and political rights of women.
When the WTUL was founded in 1903, some 6.3 million women were in the U.S. workforce, but they were openly excluded from traditional labor organizations. According to research by American economist Claudia Goldin (1949–), 17.9 percent of white women over the age of 15 were in the labor force in 1900 compared with only 3.2 percent of married white women. Because most working women were single—and promptly left the workforce after marrying—they were considered only a marginal and temporary part of the national labor pool. Most men and women in the United States maintained that women did not have a place in the workforce and that those who did work were better off married and occupied within the home. In addition to questioning whether women belonged in the workforce, some male laborers feared their presence, believing that they increased the size of the labor pool and thus depressed wages for men.
Despite this wariness the American Federation of Labor (AFL), a prominent organization of various unions, helped form the WTUL in 1903. With the backing of the AFL, the new group aimed to increase women's membership in existing unions as a means of strengthening both organized labor in general and women workers in particular. Over time the WTUL expanded its mission, operating local branches in various cities, advocating for state and federal legislation to protect female laborers, sponsoring women's educational programs, and campaigning for women's suffrage (the right to vote).
In 1906 Jewish cap maker Rose Schneiderman (1882–1972) became involved with the organization. In 1909 Schneiderman encouraged the WTUL to join forces with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and stage a strike against sweatshops (exploitative garment factories) in New York City. After a three-month strike known as the Uprising of the 20,000, tens of thousands of garment workers won wage increases, shorter hours, and somewhat safer working conditions. On April 5, 1911, Schneiderman was among those who turned out to join a procession to mourn the victims of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist fire, which occurred on March 25 in a New York City garment factory. Nearly 150 workers, most of them Jewish immigrant women, had perished in the blaze in a building that had numerous safety hazards and few unlocked doors.
Public outrage over the Triangle Shirtwaist fire increased political pressure to improve working conditions in New York City and elsewhere in the United States. Over the next several years new government regulations and safety requirements were established for workplaces. Despite these victories relations between the WTUL and the AFL began to strain, as predominantly male trade unions started to resent the growing presence of women in the workforce. This tension, along with the growing presence of nonworking middle- and upper-class women in WTUL leadership positions, led to a declining emphasis on the importance of union membership and tactics (including strikes) and a growing focus on achieving legislative change.
While this alienated much of the group's working-class membership, the WTUL was actively involved in promoting the Nineteenth Amendment (1920) to the U.S. Constitution, which gave women the right to vote. During the same period, however, it rallied against the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, introduced in 1923. Although the amendment was intended to give women equal civil and economic rights, the WTUL argued that it would undermine existing protections for women laborers. After the Equal Rights Amendment failed to pass, women's rights groups charged the WTUL with discouraging the cause for greater equality. The WTUL subsequently began a slow decline in prominence that continued until 1950, the year the organization disbanded.
SEE ALSO American Federation of Labor (AFL); Labor Movement; Trade Unions; Triangle Shirtwaist Fire; Women in the Workplace; Women's Movement; Women's Suffrage Movement
Topic: Unions Keywords: history; unions; union movement; unionization; organized labor; textile mills; Lowell Mill Girls; Female Labor Reform Associa