Union organizers, like Rose Schneiderman, not only understood the vital importance of organizing labor in challenging increasing economic disparity, but they did so in an era of union-corporate wars. Labor organizers literally laid their lives on the line by challenging anti-union hysteria and a antagonistic government. Organizers were shadowed and spied on, intimidated and beaten, ambushed and shot at, kidnapped and tortured and left for dead, and sometimes assassinated. Monopolists and their company guards, along with sheriffs, detectives, state militias and even federal troops targeted labor leaders.
At age 15 while working as a seamstress, Schneiderman learned that “no matter how just…unless the cause is backed up with power to enforce it, it is going to be crushed and annihilated.”(1) She soon grew tired of hardships, like the necessity of owning and repairing her own sewing machine while having to buy thread, and of abusive and incompetent managers that caused hostile environments.(2) She even experienced enmity among unions fearing competition while upholding gender biases. She proved female employees could organize and fight monopolists as strenuously as men could.
After having witnessed a woman complain to a manager who told her she was free to take herself and her machine and go somewhere else where things would be just as bad or perhaps worse, Schneiderman realized that it might be possible to have such abuses corrected if they first formed a group and then aired their grievances. She spent months waiting at the doors of factories and, as the girls were leaving for the day, approaching them and speaking about the hardships and how they could be changed though the power of organizing. Schneiderman gathered enough pledges of members for an active union.
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Because of her trade union activism, Schneiderman’s mother resented her, especially since she was so busy and for being out of the house engaged in social causes almost every evening. Her mother constantly warned that she would never get married because she was so busy – a prophecy which came true. But for Schneiderman, it was the beginning of a period that molded her subsequent life and opened wide many doors that might otherwise have remained closed. The trade union eventually won an increase in wages, improved working conditions, and ended some forms of sexual discrimination.
Since Schneiderman’s marriage (metaphorically speaking) to organized labor began in 1899, a time of when only two percent of women belonged to unions, she helped establish a precedent for future labor leaders. And even though she helped organize and direct a myriad of unions and boards, like the United Cloth Hat and Cap Mailers of North America, the Women’s Trade League, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, the New York State Department of Labor, and the Brookwood Labor College Board, she never forgot the importance of, and creative forces surrounding, “labor” and “work.”
Schneiderman always reminded others that labor was “effort” in expending the creation of goods or providing services, and that work was an investment of time, talents, physical strengths and ideas. Therefore, it was an act that not only benefited the worker ,but also the entire community, including owners and consumers. She placed a high value on all types of work and hoped to reform how work was rewarded. As the only woman-appointee to the Labor Advisory Board of the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act, she actively pressed for a fair and living wage for all American workers.
Along with organizing laborers for a just and living wage, Schneiderman never forgot that all work should be appreciated and highly esteemed. She fought the “real and grave evils” of economic exploitation, ones that alienated and dehumanized workers and the value of their labor. She helped regulate the “tyranny of the wealthy and wealth” by confronting monopolists and monopolies and their “predatory” decisions and behaviors. She even recognized the “unreasonableness” of amassing capital and economic powers, and how it could be excessively harmful towards the public’s interest and good.
The term “economy” arises from the Greek word “household.” It refers to a family unit and mutual feelings of trust and respect. Much of life consists of unions, like friendships and marriages, religious and civic groups, states and nations, even corporate mergers. From the beginning of her employment, Schneiderman devoted her life to the value of work and to organizing laborers. In trying to reverse the half-paid toil of workers, while challenging corporate profiteers who seized unfair shares of their laborers services and productivity, she grasped the worth of unions and the interconnectedness of workers.
Can the same be said today as workers commemorate Labor Day? In a new age of union-corporate wars and worker-bashing, where heroes are virtual celebrities instead of like Schneiderman, and where there is no need for company guards since workers have internalized extreme competition, excessive isolation and corporate divisionary tactics, perhaps it is time for laborers to literally renew their vows to unions and organized labor and, above all, too other workers. A good place to start would be supporting those who are currently striking in the fast-food and service industries.