March is Women’s History Month, a time to reflect upon and celebrate the contributions American women have made to society.
The Teamsters Union has always stood as a bastion of hope for all working people, regardless of gender, race or creed. The Teamsters Union was the first to secure a gender-blind, color-blind contract, and throughout our history our leaders have demanded equality for all members. But it is Teamsters themselves who have upheld the values of this organization and who have stood together to face and overcome adversity.
Teamster women have made significant contributions to the work force over the years, bravely fighting for economic and social justice. Teamster women, in particular, have been engaged and active politically, socially and economically, helping pass important legislation, volunteering in their communities and making life better for us all.
According to the average high school history textbook, the history of women in the labor movement can be told in a few short paragraphs about Mother Jones and some women sewing shirts in New York City. Apparently the authors never asked any working women about their story. If they had, they would know that many women have been active in the labor movement from the very beginning, leading the way for passage of critical labor legislation over the years. And Teamster women, although not usually involved in the typical heavy work of the members in the early days, were critical to the union’s success.
Dan Tobin, elected General President of the Teamsters in 1907, recognized the value of organizing women as a way to strengthen the union’s voice and increase membership. He set out to bring union protection to working women across the country. His plan quickly stalled, because while most men understood the plight of working women, they thought it folly to give full membership to a group that could not even vote. It would take two World Wars and a national epidemic to change their minds.
Undaunted, Tobin and other like-mined Teamsters found other ways to aid working women. Representatives of the union helped women workers, referred to as “auxiliary members,” organize, plan strikes and win fair contracts in the workplace. Tobin also used the Teamster magazine as a way to promote awareness of issues related to women and children in the labor force, which set it apart from many other publications of the time.
In 1916 the Teamsters were involved with a landmark contract for women laundry workers in Chicago. The union helped the workers successfully organize and create their first all-women negotiating committee. The committee won a strong contract, including a non-negotiable provision demanding equal pay for white and black workers. Following this success, the door was opened to organize more “auxiliary members” in the laundry, food and other related industries.
Equal Pay For All
By 1917 women were being trained in the motorcar and truck industries as men prepared to join the war overseas. They stepped into many other jobs previously held by men and were also trained to keep local unions going during the war.
With the great flu epidemic of 1918, Teamster women found themselves doing much more than keeping the home fires burning. Women truck drivers were needed to transport medicine and supplies to hospitals and rural areas. These women would complete a day’s work, then pick up supplies to deliver to farm families. At each stop they would help with chores and get the family settled before moving on to the next stop. Their courage and strength was incredible. The union and the country would not have made it without them. Their deeds were lauded at the time, but largely forgotten today.
As a tribute to the tremendous efforts of women and minorities in the war, the Teamsters pushed for wage equality, adopting “Equal pay for all” as their union slogan in 1919.
After a decade of post-war prosperity, the Great Depression of the 1930s brought decreases in membership for all unions. Scarcity of jobs and fears of unemployment forced workers to take whatever wages they could get. In 1934, Teamster men and women in Minneapolis took a stand against poor treatment from companies and city officials. They called a general strike, which became the epicenter of clashes between labor and management forces throughout the nation. Women were key players in this long, bloody strike that led directly to labor reform acts and the establishment of the National Labor Relations Board. They set up an infirmary, soup kitchen and other services for strikers, which ran 24 hours a day. They also raised funds to support workers and even created a newspaper to keep strikers up to date on the situation.
Rosie the Riveter Joins the Union
The bombing of Pearl Harbor brought millions of new women into the work force, tackling jobs in war production, transportation and other essential industries, many with workers represented by the Teamsters.
Recognizing the country’s dependence on their efforts gave Teamster women the leverage they needed to demand and win full union membership in 1943.
After the war, women stayed active in organizing and also turned their attention to politics, taking an active role in the union’s new political action program, DRIVE (Democrat, Republican, Independent Voter Education). They became very adept at bringing attention to important labor issues.
The Future Is Now
These are just a few of the many accomplishments by Teamster women over the decades.
Teamster women have never stopped blazing trails in the union and in the work force. They have pushed for improved workplace standards and pursued nontraditional jobs in every field.
The number of women in the work force is expected to increase dramatically in the next few decades, creating even greater need for strong women in labor unions. Dan Tobin was right: Women are valuable members, bringing strength and character to the union.
He foresaw a strong future for them in 1947 when he said, “Women members are coming into their own. In the future they will be out in ever increasing numbers…an army of labor amazons that the exploiters will learn to fear.”
Today, we are thankful for the contributions of those who have helped make our union what it is: a diverse, ever-growing organization that fights for justice, equality and fair treatment in the workplace.