Working Women and Allies: Organization of garment strikers and the involvement of the WTUL of New York

For the garment workers in the factories surrounding Washington Square Park, the summer of 1909 was a “summer of strikes” in New York City.1 That summer both men and women were walking off their jobs in a desperate attempt to fight for higher wages and shorter hours. Unions became the source of support in demanding change and workers were urged to join with frequently held rallies.2 While 1909 was a pivotal year for strike development, the first decade of the twentieth century was especially significant for women workers, who were not as frequently supported by the union.

Established in 1886, the American Federation of Labor was one of the first labor union associations. The association was male dominated and made no attempt to gain female members or assist women in organizing unions.3This decision to not include women was not a reflection on the lack of female workers at the time; by 1900 in New York City, 132,535 women were working in the manufacturing business.4 However, women were not considered permanent workers since they often quit their jobs after they were married. In public opinion, they weren’t stakeholders in the work place because they were transient, moving in and out of factories within a few years. Additionally, women were viewed as part of the consumer culture and materialistic, and thus certainly not worthy of the designation of “worker” which developed strictly masculine connotations at the turn of the century. The increased interest in fashion and the tendency for working girls to buy frivolous items like hats and French heels (both very popular at the time) had a negative impact on the female image and thus affected their participation in labor unions.5

In 1903, only three percent of women workers were part of unions, despite the fact that within the first decade of the twentieth century, 85 percent of the workforce was female.6 The steady increase of female participation in the work force, however, also saw an increase in the number of women in unions to approximately 27 percent by 1913.7 The surge in organization was a significant achievement and can be partially attributed to the creation of the Women’s Trade Union League of New York whose mission was to help women workers organize. The unity created by the joint efforts of women labor leaders and their upper-class WTUL counterparts, was essential for the success of the New York City garment labor strikes of 1909-1910 and for creating a foundation for women’s organizations in the city.


Working women were not the only ones concerned with labor conditions, and atrocious factory conditions caught the attention of a number of the city’s wealthy young women. On average, a garment worker would work 60 hours a week in a factory, and could work up to 80 hours during a rush or high season. The average pay was roughly three to six dollars a week, not including deductions.8 Members of the upper class, like Anne Morgan, began to take interest in the plight of the lower classes.

These interests were originally more intellectual; many upper class women wanted to investigate the working conditions of the lower-class and educate them as a means of social reform.9 “Allies”, as these women would come to be known, were almost always wealthy and college educated and included some of the city’s elite such as Alva Belmont, who like Morgan worked in settlement houses doing philanthropic work.10

Eventually educating and visiting was not enough. Ally Gertrude Barnum “began to feel that while the settlement was undoubtedly doing a great deal to make the lives of working people less grim and hard…it did not raise their wages or shorten their hours. It began to dawn on me, therefore, that it would be more practical to turn our energies towards raising wages and shortening hours.”11 This change in sentiment and move towards action created an atmosphere conducive for the formation of the Women’s Trade League; whose purpose was to help women form and join unions.12 In 1903, upper and middle-class women formed the Women’s Trade Union League of New York and they would dominate its administration for years, even though they were not ‘working women’ themselves.13

Although they didn’t work in factories, wealthy women were extremely useful to the cause. They provided much needed financial support, as well as offered free services in the form of education and legal assistance. Financially, the allies were indispensable. In addition to posting bail for strikers when necessary, allies covered the league’s general expenses. In 1907, two-thirds of the $3,250.55 in expenses was paid for by wealthy members of the organization. For example, Carola Woerishoffer gave the WTUL of New York $10,000 in 1910 for a strike fund.14


Financial support did not gain the trust of all working women. Laborers were weary of help from the upper-class. As labor leader Rose Schneiderman said, she “could not believe that men and women who were not wage earners themselves understood the problems that workers faced.”15 This sentiment was common, but was weakened by the more prominent idea put forth by the allies of creating a “sisterhood.”

Many of the allies believed that sisterhood should be the basis for the organization and unification of all women. They felt their relationships with each other were shaped on sharing the common bond of being female, rather than having any basis in class. It was difficult at first to put this idea into practice, since the working women and their allies came from vastly different backgrounds. Allies often saw work as a measure of self-sufficiency, whereas laborers found it to be oppressive.16 However, as strike attendance improved, both groups of women were able to unite for the common cause of women’s rights. By 1907, the WTUL had gained a better balance of working women and ally members. Between the years 1909-1913, nearly 100,000 garment workers participated in strikes, often supported by the WTUL.17 It is clear that at some point the relationship between working women and allies became mutually beneficial.

Not all of the goals of the WTUL were met in New York City. Many of the garment- and other manufacturing-workers still struggled to secure the wages they requested. However, their success in organizing and sustaining large-scale strikes proved that woman could effectively organize. The WTUL increasingly turned its interests towards suffrage, but used the strong foundation and community, formed during the heat of the labor strikes, to continue to advocate for women’s rights. In the short term, they may have felt defeated by the unwillingness of large garment companies to negotiate, but the growth of the Women’s Trade Union League in New York City and the influence of the working women were important steps in creating a unified “sisterhood.”

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