Labor Day: 10 Most Influential Women Union Heroes in History

September 4, 2023
6 mins read
14-yr. old striker, Fola La Follette, and Rose Livingston

Labor Day celebrates the Labor Movement and workers’ rights, but we often forego celebrating those who achieved those rights for us—and history points out, sisters were doin’ it for themselves. Women by and large led the Labor Movement, organizing unions, leading strikes and in some cases even laying down their own lives and livelihoods for the cause. So, in honor of Labor Day, meet 10 influential women union heroes who will inspire you to achieve inclusion, equality and better conditions, no matter where you work.

Related: When Is Labor Day 2023? How To Celebrate the Long Weekend

1. Dolores Huerta

Dolores Huerta and Fred Ross started the Community Service Organization in Stockton, California, designed to improve the lives of the Latinx community in 1955. Five years later, Huerta co-founded the Agricultural Workers Association, aimed at registering members to vote. In 1962, Huerta co-founded the National Farm Workers Association (later called the United Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee) with César Chávez. In 1965, Huerta and Chávez organized the Delano grape strike, which lasted five years and obtained fair wages and working conditions for farm workers.

Among many other issues, Huerta also lobbied for several initiatives including:

  • The 1960 bill to permit Spanish-speaking people to take the California driver’s test in Spanish 
  • 1963 legislation to extend the federal program Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) to ban pesticide DDT in 1972
  • California farm workers and the 1975 California Agricultural Labor Relations Act

She’s actively fought not just for the rights of workers and Latinx community members, but also for women’s rights and political representation.

Related: Labor Day History

2. Addie L. Wyatt

Rev. Addie L. Wyatt was the first African American woman to hold a senior position in the Labor Movement: she was elected President of Local 56 of the Packinghouse Workers (UPWA) in 1954. In 1956, Wyatt and her husband worked alongside Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. fundraising for the Montgomery Improvement Association, and she organized a multi-racial coalition of workers for the UPWA to get equal pay long before the Equal Pay Act passed in 1963. President John F. Kennedy appointed Wyatt to his Commission on the Status of Women in 1962, and a year later co-founded the National Organization of Women. She co-founded the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) in 1972 and the Coalition of Labor Union Women in 1974, and throughout the rest of that decade was chair of the Coalition of the CBTU’s National Women’s Committee.

3. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn organized for the Industrial Workers of the World, supporting New York restaurant workers, Pennsylvania garment workers, New Jersey silk weavers, Massachusetts textile workers and miners across several states. Flynn fought for free speech, women’s suffrage and birth control and was one of the founding members of the American Civil Liberties Union. She was arrested numerous times throughout her life, largely due to her protest activities as well as involvement with the Communist Party, and served two years in prison, which she chronicled in The Alderson Story: My Life as a Political Prisoner.

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4. Pauline Newman

Pauline Newman was the first woman organizer appointed to the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), organizing a 20,000-deep strike in 1909. She worked with the union for over 70 years as an advocate and activist for not just the Labor Movement, but also for suffrage (especially working class) and tenants’ rights. Newman worked closely with Eleanor Roosevelt in efforts to improve the lives of women. She stood up for workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, famously writing in a letter about their timed bathroom breaks and 12-hour days, “All we knew was the bitter fact that after working 70 or 80 hours in a seven-day week, we did not earn enough to keep body and soul together.”

In 1923, Newman founded the Union Health Center in New York City, where she focused most of her efforts for the next 60 years, but she didn’t stop there: The U.S. Department of State and Labor enlisted Newman to review German post-war factory conditions after World War II, and she served as a consultant to the U.S. Public Health Service for President Harry Truman’s presidency.

5. Lucy Gonzales Parsons

Born into slavery in Texas, labor activist and outstanding orator Lucy Gonzalez Parsons was once described as “more dangerous than a thousand rioters.” She and her white socialist husband, Albert Parsons, were often at risk of racist attacks and violence. They fled to Chicago to pursue a safer life there, where they participated in the first May Day Parade in 1886—demanding an eight-hour workday—and the Haymarket Affair. Albert was arrested, convicted and sentenced to death for his alleged participation in the Haymarket bombings, even though he and the others convicted were never actually proven to be involved. Lucy continued her activism after his death, writing for a number of pro-Labor publications and becoming one of only two women co-founders of the International Workers of the World Union.

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6. Clara Lemlich

Clara Lemlich was a key figure in the women’s Labor movement. She immigrated to the United States just six years earlier, fleeing antisemitism in Ukraine, and worked at a shirtwaist factory in New York for meager wages. She joined the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) when she was 17 and wrote passionate editorials and organized a series of strikes to improve working conditions, often risking her life in the process: She was once hospitalized after being badly beaten at a picket line.

In November 1909, Lemlich led the Uprising of the 20,000 in New York City, a strike lasting months, with a rousing speech in her native Yiddish: “I am a working girl, one of those who are on strike against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in general terms. What we are here for is to decide whether we shall strike or shall not strike. I offer a resolution that a general strike be declared now.” She and 15,000 others marched the following day and won concessions from several factories for higher wages and shorter work days.

7. Ai-Jen Poo

Ai-Jen Poo is the co-founder of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. She began organizing domestic workers in 1996 and established Domestic Workers United (DWU), which focused on domestic workers’ rights for women of color. DWU pushed New York to enact the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, granting domestic workers three days of paid leave, overtime pay and legal protections from discrimination and harassment in 2010.

8. Mother Jones

Mother Jones, born Mary G. Harris, was an Irish-Catholic immigrant. She started her career as a teacher at a Michigan convent, then left for Chicago and Memphis, where she married husband and National Union of Iron Moulders organizer, George E. Jones, in 1861. In 1867, George and all of his and Mary’s children died of yellow fever. She returned to Chicago and worked as a dressmaker, but faced more hardship when she lost her home and all of her possessions in the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

Inspired by efforts to rebuild Chicago after the disaster, Mary Jones joined the Knights of Labor and began organizing workers’ strikes, some of which were deadly at the hands of police. The Knights of Labor dissolved after the Haymarket Affair, at which point Jones led strikes for the United Mine Workers union and often got workers’ wives and children to march in protests. In 1903, after adopting her “Mother Jones” moniker, she led the “Children’s Crusade” march of child mine workers from Philadelphia to then-President Theodore Roosevelt‘s home in Oyster Bay, New York, and continued her union activism until her death in 1930.

Related: Relax! Uplifting Quotes in Celebration of a Happy Labor Day

9. Luisa Moreno

Guatemalan immigrant Luisa Moreno worked as a seamstress to support her family during the Great Depression, and organized a garment workers’ union for herself and her colleagues, most of whom were also Latina. In 1935, she began working as an organizer for the American Federation of Labor and unionized cigar rollers, most of whom were people of color. She joined the Congress of Industrial Organizations and became editor of the Spanish-language United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA) newspaper in 1940. While working for the UCAPAWA, she organized pecan-shellers and cannery workers in several states, taking a year off to organize El Congreso de Pueblos de Hablan Española (The Spanish-Speaking People’s Congress).

Moreno organized tirelessly for the rights of migrant workers, saying in one speech, “These people are not aliens. They have contributed their endurance, sacrifices, youth and labor to the Southwest. Indirectly, they have paid more taxes than all the stockholders of California’s industrialized agriculture, the sugar companies and the large cotton interests, that operate or have operated with the labor of Mexican workers.” She fought discrimination against Hispanic and Latinx workers in the defense industry, as well as police brutality. She was deported in 1950 amid Operation Wetback, which targeted Mexican and Latin Americans, especially labor activists.

10. Hattie Canty

What happened in Vegas didn’t stay in Vegas, and thank goodness for that: Hattie Canty was a labor activist in Las Vegas who led a 75-day strike of casino workers determined to achieve better conditions and health insurance benefits through the Las Vegas Hotel and Culinary Workers Union Local 226. She became president of the union in 1990 and led several more strikes, including a 1991 strike of 550 workers New Frontier Hotel and Gambling Hall that was the longest ever, clocking in at six and a half years.

Canty also led efforts to increase training and education for workers, as well as for fair and living wages, as well as encouraging people of color to seek socioeconomic advancement and workplace equality.

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