The past few weeks have been filled with busy, busy days. I have been to my 20th class reunion and I continue to do events around DC for the Obama4UnityBeatsMcCain slate that I am running on for the DC Democratic State Committee. Hell, I’ve even had a friend visit and I had the sheer pleasure of hanging out with UnionReview’s own Richard Negri one night last weekend. In all of this, I’ve been thinking about women, unions and what exactly all of our stories really are and where they are.
This is probably due to the current negotiations with the WTU that I’ve been reporting on for longer than I’d like (seriously, sure looks like Fenty and Rhee are anti-worker in all this). It may have something to do with the recent election of Randi Weingarten, Antonia Cortese and Loretta Johnson at the American Federation of Teachers.
So, as the 88th Anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment fast approaches, I’ve become even more interested in this discussion, so much so, that I decided that perhaps another Labor History lesson should be posted to remind all of us that the labor movement has always been entwined with other movements, including that of Women’s Suffrage. This brings us to Samuel Gompers and Maud Younger.
Way back in the early years of the 20th century, Samuel Gompers worked to develop a strategy for the adoption of a prevailing wage to be used for workers across the country. A prevailing wage is one where the wage of work accomplished is based on the prevailing wage in that area. So, a contractor in Alabama cannot compete on a contract in Michigan and import workers from Alabama and pay an Alabama wage in Michigan. Need more on the prevailing wage and history of it, I’d suggest this source.
In working for a prevailing wage, he was forced to also discourage those pushing for a minimum wage, enter Maud Younger.
Maud Younger had been born to wealth but didn’t allow her status to be her only defining attribute. As a unionist, Maud was able to bridge different movements by combining her grassroots activism with her socialite status. She used this leverage to work on issues related to an 8 hour work day, 6 day work week, minimum wage and child labor, getting most of these initiatives into law in California within her lifetime. However, the one issue that seems to have been a sticking point between her movement to win for women child labor laws and a living wage was the concept of a prevailing wage which Samuel Gompers wrote, imploring her to desist from minimum wage activities:
I trust that you will proceed with the utmost caution in any effort to establish a minimum wage by statutory law. Speaking fundamentally a minimum wage should be established and maintained by the organizations of labor. If a minimum wage law for working men is established by law, by the same token it is more than probable that it may finally transpire that another law will be enacted, compelling working men to work for such a minimum as a maximum.
Gompers went on to state in his letter to Maud that:
I think it advisable to call to your attention, and trust that you will profit by it, this observation: many person appear to be impressed with the notion that legal enactments will solve the labor problem, and much theorizing is indulged in relative to the extent to which legislation can favorably affect working people, but they fail to counterbalance their reasoning by recognizing a possibility that if laws can be placed upon the statute books establishing minimum wages, and kindred measures, by the same process of reasoning, there may be other laws placed upon the stature books that will be extremely detrimental to working people.
As Gompers worked toward prevailing wage rates on the state level, Maud was hard at work pushing for women and men to obtain a minimum wage to ensure that they were able to feed their families earn a living and find a way out of poverty which would allow their children to go to school instead of working. But for Maud, workers’ rights and women’s suffrage were intertwined. This interconnection propelled Maud to organize from the roots up:
Younger returned to California, where she organized San Francisco’s first waitress union (1908) and was instrumental in the passage of the state’s eight-hour-day work law.
Since Younger viewed working and voting rights as closely related issues, she helped found the Wage Earners’ Equal Suffrage League for Working Women, spoke on the vote in union halls around the state, and encouraged men to support the women’s cause. A master of showmanship, she created publicity for state suffrage with a Wage Earner’s Equal Suffrage League float in the 1911 Labor Day parade in San Francisco. In that year she helped lobby for passage of a woman suffrage amendment to the California constitution.
Maud worked tirelessly for women’s rights, from working with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU now UNITE-HERE) against subcontracting in New York to lobbying Congress for women’s suffrage, missing no opportunity to highlight the cause, including an article in McCall's Magazine where she described some of the difficulties she faced as an activist and a woman:
Though great strides were being made, gains never came easy, as the suffrage movement met with considerable obstacles throughout the country. For instance, in Dallas, Texas, just as the United States was ready to enter World War I, National Women's Party organizers were prevented from hiring halls and hotel rooms for Younger and her colleagues. The mayor of the city refused to allow Younger to hold a street meeting. City officials even refused when Younger offered to submit her speech for review and possible censorship. The party met with similar obstacles in Tennessee. Reportedly, members of the War Association and Home Defense League went to every hotel and meeting place in the state and requested that Younger be refused rooms and halls. They also went to city mayors and asked that they refuse to grant permits for street meetings. In 1919, Younger wrote about her experiences in an article for McCall's magazine entitled "Revelations of a Woman Lobbyist."
Maud Younger passed away June 25, 1936, at her ranch in Los Gatos, California. Despite her age and health, Maud remained focused on women’s rights, serving as the National Women’s Party Congressional chair until her passing. As an ardent supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment, she championed the cause of women and women in the workplace through her tireless advocacy.
As I look toward celebrating the 88th anniversary of Women’s Right To Vote, I, and women all over this country owe a debt of gratitude to the millionaire Waitress, Maud Younger.
Perhaps someday, we can even have an exhibit on Maud in the National Women’s History Museum