What set the American WTUL apart from other organizations of its era was that it was composed of women from diverse socioeconomic classes. It attracted working class women, social reformers and some upper-class women who were disturbed by the dangerous conditions in the workplaces where many lower income women were employed.
Sources differ as to who founded the Women's Trade Union League. David Von Drehle (author of Triangle: The Fire That Changed America) asserts that it was founded by William English Walling, who came from a wealthy Kentucky family. Another source claims the founders were Jane Addams and Mary Anderson (the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, associated with the Department of History of The George Washington University).Regardless of how the organization actually began, it was clear that women very quickly assumed leadership positions in it. At the time of the founding of the WTUL, the AFL was not seen as hospitable to women, but the WTUL worked to strengthen ties with it over the years. The WTUL had as its mission to organize women into trade unions that would fight for improved conditions in the workplace and to advance protective legislation that would eliminate or lessen the dangers that threatened the health and safety of female employees.
Among its prominent supporters was Eleanor Roosevelt, who became an active league member in 1922.
Some of the Women Leaders in the WTUL included:
Jane Addams, prominent social reformer, co-founder of Hull House in Chicago
Mary Anderson, garment worker and member of the Boot and Shoe Workers Union
Margaret Dreier Robins, labor reformer and women's suffragist, member of the WTUL, president of the Chicago WTUL (1907-13), president of the National Women's Trade Union League (1907-22)
Mary Dreier, settlement worker, member of the WTUL, (1904-50), president of the New York WTUL (1906-14)
Mary Kenney O'Sullivan, one of the founders of the WTUL, dressmaker and bookbinder
Mary McDowell, Chicago social reformer and early president of the WTUL
Agnes Nestor, an officer in the International Glove Workers Union, who went on to serve as president of the WTUL
Rose Schneiderman, garment worker, WTUL member, vice-president of the New York WTUL, and later its national president, who became an advisor to Eleanor Roosevelt on labor issues
Lillian Wald, social reformer, early member of the WTUL, later a member of the New York branch's executive committee
Accomplishments of the Women's Trade Union League
Some of the social reformers of the New York WTUL provided support for the Uprising of 20,000, a strike of garment workers in New York City in 1909. The WTUL raised money to assist the striking workers and joined picket lines and marches. Mary Dreier, a WTUL member, was arrested on the picket line. The strike ended in early 1910 when many, but not all, garment factories agreed to many of the workers' demands for better pay and shorter hours. After the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the WTUL took part in an investigation lasting four years that helped to establish workplace safety regulations. The WTUL also provided support to striking workers in several states besides New York, including Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
In the 1920's WTUL fought for women's right to vote and worked with the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Rose Schneiderman of the WTUL was among the women activists in that fight.
In the next several years, the WTUL helped achieve the 8-hour workday, a minimum wage, and helped to abolish child labor.
In the 1920's, the WTUL held summer classes at Bryn Mawr and Barnard Colleges to train women on how to organize women workers.
After the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Rose Schneiderman, by then WTUL's national president, helped to advise the administration on Social Security and the Fair Labor Standards Act.
The Chicago Connection
During the early decades of the 20th century, Chicago had a flourishing garment industry. The WTUL Chicago branch was active in supporting workers' struggles here. Many of the women who were prominent in the WTUL were here in Chicago, organizing workers, many of them immigrant women, to fight to improve their working conditions. In its early days in Chicago, the WTUL held its meetings at Hull House and later moved to the Chicago Federation of Labor. During Margaret Dreier Robins' presidency of the Chicago branch, the WTUL played a role in the 1910-1911 garment workers' strike (also known as the Hart, Schaffner and Marx strike) by providing food for the striking workers. It also helped formulate the agreement that ended the strike with that employer. The Chicago WTUL also was involved in attempting to organize domestic workers, telephone operators and others. In addition to those roles, it organized cultural and educational programs, as well as English language classes.
The WTUL Disbands
Although the Women's Trade Union League disbanded in 1950, its contributions to the labor movement and the legacy of the women within it, have remained lasting. The Coalition of Labor Union Women, founded in 1974, while not a direct legacy of the WTUL, has worked for over 40 years to address the needs of women workers, and to make unions more responsive to their concerns. The women of Women's Trade Union League would certainly approve that their work lives on.
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