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Women warriors in labor history

Published Mar 23, 2012 9:51 PM

Following is an edited selection from a talk by Martha Grevatt, a long-time autoworker and union militant, given March 17 in Detroit at a Workers World Party commemoration of International Working Women’s Day.

The struggle for the eight-hour workday culminated in a day of action on May 1, 1886, called by the American Federation of Labor. About a quarter of a million took part in many cities, but Chicago, with its militant left-wing labor movement, had the largest demonstration. There, tens of thousands laid down their tools, and women and men poured into the streets. The demonstrations continued past May 1, and on May 3 police attacked and six workers were killed.

The next day a protest over the killings was held in Haymarket Square. A bomb was thrown, a policeman was killed, and a struggle broke out that left seven police and four workers dead. Eight workers’ leaders were convicted of murder, five of them sentenced to death. Four were hanged and one reportedly committed suicide. The other three were eventually pardoned.

Women in Chicago were active in all the labor federations that supported the call for the May Day demonstration. Lucy Parsons, Lizzie Holmes and Sarah Ames were leaders of women dressmakers who joined the walkout. Their organization, the International Working Peoples Association, had “equality of rights without distinction to sex or race” in its platform.

Lucy Parsons, a woman of African-American, Mexican and Native descent, became a widow when her spouse, Albert Parsons, was executed for the trumped-up murder charges that arose from the Haymarket struggle. The Parsons had moved to Chicago in 1873 where they were both steeped in the labor movement. They had two children. They were both tireless activists.

In the months leading up to Albert’s martyrdom on Nov. 11, 1887, and continuing until the pardon of the other three defendants, Lucy campaigned around their innocence. She was arrested on numerous occasions, including when she tried to break through the police line to see Albert in his final hours.

In 1905, Parsons was one of the founders of the Industrial Workers of the World. By then she was well established as a powerful orator. The Chicago police had labeled her “more dangerous than 1,000 rioters.”

Parsons roused the crowds at the first IWW convention. There she expounded on a new, unconventional strike tactic — a stay-in strike that later became known as the sit-down. “My conception of the strike of the future is not to strike and go out and starve, but to strike and remain in and take possession of the necessary property of production,” Parsons argued. Six years later the IWW waged the first stay-in, “folded-arms” strike at a General Electric plant in Schenectady, N.Y. – and won.

Parsons spoke out against lynchings and fought frameups — including those of Sacco and Vanzetti, Tom Mooney and the Scottsboro Nine — her whole long life. She died in a house fire in 1942 at 89.

Fighting to end child labor

Another woman engaged in the historic Haymarket struggle was the Dublin-born Mary Harris Jones — the famous Mother Jones. She was born in the 1830s and moved with her family to Canada as a teenager, later moving to Monroe, Mich., and Chicago.

After her marriage in 1861 to the leader of the National Union of Molders, George Jones, she was introduced to what would be a lifelong career — labor activist. After George and their four children died during a yellow fever epidemic 10 years later, Jones moved back to Chicago where she too worked as a dressmaker. She was very involved with the more conservative Knights of Labor, which nevertheless took part in the May 1 coalition in Chicago.

The Knights were already declining as workers looked to more militant groups at that time like the AFL and the International Working People’s Association, a precursor of the IWW. As the Knights declined, Jones became entrenched in the fight of the mineworkers, from West Virginia to Colorado, for a decent wage and better working conditions.

Around this time, as she approached the age of 60, she took on the persona of “Mother Jones.” John D. Rockefeller tagged her “the most dangerous woman in America.” One of her passions was the struggle to end child labor. In 1903, she organized a march of children from Philadelphia to the Long Island, N.Y., home of President Theodore Roosevelt to dramatize the plight of children working in the mines and textile mills.

In 1905, Jones, like Parsons, was one of 12 women delegates to the founding convention of the IWW. Also a fiery orator, she had earlier roused the miners to do battle with the owners. She died in 1930 reportedly at 93, although she claimed to be 100. Still a legend, her legacy inspired women miners and family members during the 1989 Pittston coal strike to form “Daughters of Mother Jones.”

Lucy Parsons and Mother Jones were not the only women leaders in the IWW. Although we most often associate the group with men like Joe Hill, there were many women leaders. They didn’t always get the support they wanted from the male leadership, but they managed to organize many women and girls.

For example, Jane Street organized a union hiring hall in Denver for super-exploited domestic workers. The women acted collectively to keep wages from falling below a set rate by, one after another, answering want ads but refusing to work for less than that rate.

These leaders were all women who embraced the words of the preamble to the IWW’s constitution: “It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism.”