National Women’s Trade Union League (NWTUL)
Introduction: Women working in factories often faced terrible working conditions and low wages. During the Progressive Era, working-class women, alone and in concert with middle-class women, fought to raise wages and improve working conditions. The National Women’s Trade Union League of America (NWTUL) was established in Boston, MA in 1903, at the convention of the American Federation of Labor. It was organized as a coalition of working-class women, professional reformers, and women from wealthy and prominent families. Its purpose was to “assist in the organization of women wage workers into trade unions and thereby to help them secure conditions necessary for healthful and efficient work and to obtain a just reward for such work.”
History: The roots of the WTUL come from a British organization of the same name founded thirty years prior. The British League had originally supported the creation of a separate women’s labor movement but, by the 1890s, merged its own aims with the mainstream British labor movement and functioned as an umbrella organization of women’s trade unions. Organized in 1903 at the American Federation of Labor (AFL) convention, the WTUL spent much of its early years trying to cultivate ties with the AFL leadership. By 1907, the WTUL saw its purpose as supporting the AFL and encouraging women’s membership in the organization. In its constitution that year, the WTUL defined its purpose in assisting “in organizing women into trade unions…such unions to be affiliated, where practicable, with the American Federation of Labor.” In response, the AFL leadership generally ignored the League. When the WTUL decided to hold its annual conference at a different location than the AFL in 1905, Samuel Gompers was furious and refused to attend. Still, the League did push the AFL towards a pro-woman suffrage position and did manage to organize more women into the Federation than at any previous time.
It also drew on the earlier work of activists in the settlement house movement such as Jane Addams and Florence Kelley, and budding unions in industries with a large number of women workers, such as garments and textiles. The WTUL leadership comprised both upper-class philanthropists and working-class women with experience organizing unions, including a significant portion of the most important female labor leaders of the day, including Rose Schneiderman.
But the heyday of the League came between 1907 and 1922 under the presidency of Margaret Dreier Robins. During that period, the WTUL led the drive to organize women workers into unions, secured protective legislation, and educated the public on the problems and needs of working women.
From 1907 through 1922, the WTUL achieved a number of its legislative goals, including an eight-hour workday, a minimum wage, and the abolition of child labor. Following the Triangle Factory Fire in 1911 the WTUL took part in a four-year investigation that ultimately helped establish new industrial safety regulations. In addition, the league helped women gain access to labor unions, trained women for leadership positions within unions, and even provided temporary assistance for unemployed trade union women.
At a time when organized labor was devoted to a “family wage” concept—that is, a wage for men at which they could support an entire family without the contribution of a working wife—and when union leaders were worried that increased participation of women in labor markets would drive down men’s wages, traditional unions were largely unwilling to allow women into their ranks. When women did form unions and strike, the NWTUL often provided support where other unions held back.
Perhaps most importantly, the WTUL emerged as the central meeting place for reform-minded women interested in labor issues, and it was through the WTUL that many of these women cultivated important political relationships. Eleanor Roosevelt became an active league member in 1922, cementing her ties to figures like Rose Schneiderman and Margaret Dreier Robins. These women eventually became staunch Roosevelt allies, providing the WTUL important access to powerful politicians and ensuring that their voices would be factored into the formulation of labor policy in Washington. Despite the league’s closeness to the White House during the Roosevelt years, the WTUL’s role grew increasingly irrelevant once traditional labor unions allowed women to join on a widespread basis. Mounting financial problems and declining membership numbers also hampered WTUL’s effectiveness. Even though Eleanor Roosevelt remained supportive of the League until the end, when the NWTUL was forced to disband in 1950 due to diminished funds and personnel.
For further reading:
Amsterdam, S. (1982). “The National Women’s Trade Union League“. Social Service Review. 56 (2): 259–272.
The Eight-Hour Day for Women (1915). NWTUL pamphlet.
Dreier, M. E. (1950). Margaret Dreier Robins : her life, letters, and work.
Sources: Eleanor Roosevelt National Historical Site: http://www.nps.gov/elro/index.htm
University of Chicago: http://www.uic.edu/depts/lib/specialcoll/services/rjd/findingaids/NWTULf.html
National Women’s History Museum: http://www.nwhm.org/online-exhibits/progressiveera/workingwomen.html
Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia: http:// en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women’s_Trade_Union_League
Resources related to this topic may be found in the Social Welfare History Image Portal.