Nearly two centuries ago, a group of women and girls — some as young as 12 — decided they'd had enough. Laboring in the textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, they faced exhausting 14-hour days, abusive supervisors and dangerous working conditions. When threatened with a pay cut, they finally put their foot down.
The mill workers organized, went on strike and formed America's first union of working women. They shocked their bosses, captured the attention of a young nation and blazed a trail for the nascent labor movement that would follow.
As we celebrate Women's History Month, working women are proudly living up to that example — organizing, taking to the streets and running for office in unprecedented numbers. It is a reminder that the movements for worker and women’s rights always have been interwoven.
But even as we rally together, our opponents are proving to be as relentless as ever. It’s been 184 years since that first strike in Lowell, and our rights still are being threatened by the rich and powerful. The Janus v. AFSCME case currently before the Supreme Court is one of the most egregious examples.
Janus is specifically designed to undermine public-sector unions’ ability to advocate for working people and negotiate fair contracts. More than that, it is a direct attack on working women. The right to organize and bargain together is our single best ticket to equal pay, paid time off and protection from harassment and discrimination.
Women of color would be particularly hurt by a bad decision in this case. Some 1.5 million public employees are African-American women, more than 17 percent of the public-sector workforce. Weaker collective bargaining rights would leave these workers with even less of a voice on the job.
This only would add insult to injury as black women already face a double pay gap based on race and gender, earning only 67 cents on the dollar compared to white men.
This is a moment for working women to take our fight to the next level. For generations, in the face of powerful opposition, we have stood up for the idea that protecting the dignity and rights of working people is a cause in which everyone has a stake.
Look no further than Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, dubbed "the most dangerous woman in America" for her unapologetic advocacy of mine workers.
When Pennsylvania newspapers refused to report on the horrors facing children in the mines, she marched, in 1903, with working people from Philadelphia to President Theodore Roosevelt’s summer home in Long Island.
Jones and her “army” of workers helped spark a national movement against child labor, ultimately ridding the country of a practice that would be unthinkable today.
Consider Dolores Huerta, who broke through countless racist and sexist barriers on the way to revolutionizing the way union organizers mobilize workers to make change. Rallying a fragmented, deeply vulnerable community of California farm workers, she drove a historic nationwide grape boycott in 1965 and secured a union contract for thousands of working people.
Today, we are inspired by the women leading the fight against sexual harassment. Whistleblowers like Juana Melara and Sandra Pezqueda, both members of UNITE HERE, are using their own stories to uproot the twisted culture permeating the hospitality industry.
Meanwhile, labor leaders like SAG-AFTRA’s Gabrielle Carteris are implementing industry-wide codes of conduct to protect their members from harassment. From movie studios and newsrooms to restaurants and hotels, organized labor is drawing the same clear line in the sand.
When we stand together for dignity and respect on the job, we can change the world. What was true in the Lowell mills, the Pennsylvania mines and the California grape fields remains our guiding light on Janus, #MeToo and all the fights of today: Solidarity will lead us to victory.
Liz Shuler is secretary-treasurer of the 12.5 million-member AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the United States.