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Democracy at Work

A convention of working women was held recently in New York City. Teachers and office cleaners, glove and shoe makers, beer bottlers and telephone operators, garment workers, waitresses, candy and brush makers, stenographers, clerks and laundry workers, met to discuss industrial problems, to consider conditions in industry and shape and direct them. Even in the first days the difference in the character of this convention manifested itself in a spirit of fellowship and festivity, in verses and songs, in nonsense rhymes and general merrymaking. But it was when the convention resolved itself into committees covering the work of organization, legislation, judicial decisions, woman suffrage, unemployment and education, and these committees began to make their reports, that the real significance of the convention showed itself.

Who are these young women who so definitely illustrated their fitness to take charge of and help direct the industries of the present day; who spoke so wisely, so patiently and at times so passionately of their life's experience as the discussion went back and forth on unemployment, the minimum wage, the eight hour day, pensions for working mothers, the right to strike, the writ of injunctions, the decisions of judges? They were the elected representatives of 100,000 organized working women affiliated with the American Federation of Labor and the National Women's Trade Union League. They were daughters of mechanics, day laborers, merchants, factory workers; women who had gone to work at the age of nine, ten, twelve and thirteen years, of whom many had quit the public school at the fifth or sixth grade. Their knowledge had come to them out of their daily life—not out of the industries in which they were engaged, but out of their organizations which were calling forth the power and effort to change and control those industries.

That this convention represented the working woman's movement within the labor movement was proven again and again. The convention showed a spirit of solidarity, of comradeship, of happiness in the fellowship one with another which only rarely finds expression in this world of ours. "We have come. We are here, here to help and to serve, but here also to direct the labor movement in America." The woman's point of view, women's needs, aspirations and ideals are henceforth to find expression in the labor movement of our country.

There was Julia O'Connor, a slip of a girl, leader of the telephone operators' strike in Boston, whose clearness of thought, fine insight and determined spirit never failed her during the all-night session with the Telephone Company which resulted in understanding and arbitration and victory for the telephone operators. Her proven leadership for constructive work elected her representative of the brush makers and the retail clerks on the Minimum Wage Board of Massachusetts. There was Mary McEnerney, chairman of the Woman Suffrage Committee, a voter in Illinois, whose presentation of the need of the ballot for women expressed the conviction, continuously repeated and reiterated during the week by all the delegates, that the ballot is an economic necessity to working women. Only incidentally was it learned that this young woman had started work in a bindery at a very early age when neither the child labor law nor the limitation of hours of work were enforced. But nothing daunted, the child took matters in to her own hand, and when the hours seemed endless, serenely cut her finger so as to be disabled for work. There was Mary Butler, glove worker by trade, a leader among the women workers in Chicago and the first trade union woman to be appointed by any Board of Education teacher of her trade in the public schools.

There were leaders of wide experience such as Agnes Nestor, president of the International Glove Workers' Union; Mary Anderson and Emma Steghagen, two boot and shoe workers who have done yeoman service in the labor movement in Chicago; Melinda Scott, president of the Hat Trimmers' Union, who with her fellow workers stood so bravely by the hatters in their great struggle; Leonora O'Reilly, shirt maker, delegate to the Peace Conference at The Hague; Rose Schneidermann, cap maker, the greatest practical idealist in the group.

The welcome given new leaders and the acceptance of these new leaders in the councils of labor was significant. For instance, there was Agnes Burns, a true Celt in speech and appearance, from one of the mining camps of Illinois, daughter and sister of miners, asking that the call of the women in the se small mining towns for a greater relationship to life and human fellowship be answered. Then there was Myrtle Whitehead, who at thirteen entered upon nine long years of factory work and who woke up to a realization of how little she knew and how much of wrong she had accepted as inevitable when her trade organization called upon her and her fellow workers to change their conditions of work. There was Mrs. Dunn, a whitehaired woman who had just recently helped to establish the Office Cleaners' Union in Boston. With a revealing matter-of-factness she spoke of the office cleaners' hours of work from two to nine in the morning. As a result of the organization the wages were raised from six to eight dollars a week and the work so planned that the hours were continuous instead of intermittent, thus saving car fare and time and strength.

One of the most interesting and illuminating reports given was the report of the Committee on Judicial Decisions presented by two of the youngest delegates to the convention, a beer bottler and a stenographer by trade, Louisa Mittlestadt and Agnes O'Brien. For nearly an hour on one of the first days of the convention, Mr. Gompers had told the delegates of the Clayton act, and presented his point of view as to its great significance to the cause of freedom in the labor world. The committee quoted a passage from the Clayton act which seemed charged with danger and stated that therein lay the "joker" in the act. It is significant that the judgment of a leader was not considered final, and that these young women felt charged with a personal responsibility for calling attention to possible danger in the law. It was a picture of democracy at its best, for the thought of democracy is a responsible citizenship on guard. Not only the leaders, the rank and file of the people must have initiative and independent thought.

That the working women recognize and realize the fact that they are not only concerned with the bettering of wages, even though these wages still represent for tens of thousands of them five and eight and ten cents an hour, nor the bettering of conditions of industry in the matter of sanitation and hours of work, but that they are vitally concerned with still deeper wrongs of which industrial conditions are but an expression, was proven, if proof were needed, by this convention. The relationship of the working women's group to the decisions of the Supreme Court of West Virginia regarding martial law, to the Ludlow massacre and the conviction of John R. Lawson, was clearly stated in discussions and resolutions. This alertness of thought, this keenness of insight into the interrelationship of all these questions, is the direct result of their training in self-government received in the labor movement and through their own local organizations where they are daily having to meet and handle the conditions of work in their own industry.

Herein lies the great service of the trade union to the nation. It trains for citizenship in an industrial democracy as well as in a political democracy. It calls forth independent thought and action, and makes it possible for the workers to participate in the control of industry. It develops mind, disciplines character and helps to create freedom of spirit. The organized labor movement is the only power that stands between a permanent servile class and the hope of democracy.


This article originally ran in the July 3, 1915, issue of the magazine.