For Women, History is Happening Now

I recently had the chance to walk in labor legend Dolores Huerta's shoes, as part of a celebration of Women's History Month. I joined my sisters from other labor unions putting voice to our history, in my case, playing Huerta, who along with César Chávez founded the United Farm Workers.

Huerta, who is still a union activist and negotiator for the Farm Workers, was a teacher back in the 1950s when she came face to face with hungry children of migrant workers.

"I couldn't tolerate seeing kids come to class hungry and needing shoes," she said. "I thought I could do more by organizing farm workers than by trying to teach their hungry children."

Throughout American history, women like Huerta stepped up when workers and children were mistreated by callous employers. For women, labor was a celebrated cause -- from Lucy Parsons to Mother Jones to Crystal Lee Sutton, who inspired the classic movie Norma Rae. We celebrate Women's History Month in March, mindful that what our predecessors fought for in decades past -- justice for all workers, equal pay -- is still at the forefront of our work today in the labor movement.

Perhaps no one is more closely aligned to the fight against child labor as Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, an Irish-American schoolteacher and dressmaker whose husband and children perished from yellow fever in the 1860s, and whose dress shop was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. In 1903, she organized children then working in the mills and mines to march from Philadelphia to the New York home of Pres. Theodore Roosevelt, demanding that they have a chance to go to school, instead of laboring in the mines.

Mother Jones was famously called "the most dangerous woman in America" for her success in organizing coal miners, and she proved that a woman's place is in her union. In a union, we fight for better wages and working conditions, for job safety and retirement security. History shows we are making a difference -- not only in the lives of our families, but in the lives of all working people.

March 25 marked the 104th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, when 146 souls perished -- including 123 young women, most between the ages of 16 and 23. Two were 14 years old, pressed into labor to help feed their families near the turn of the 20th century in New York's Garment District. The factory owners locked the doors from the outside to keep the workers from leaving.

That 1911 fire galvanized sentiment for labor reforms, including laws for workplace safety and prohibitions against child labor. Women were on the front lines, fighting for workers' rights even before they claimed the right to vote.

Rose Schneiderman, a union activist who was celebrated during the recent Women's History Month event, rallied New Yorkers at the Metropolitan Opera just a week after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, decrying the conditions that led to the deaths of so many young women. "I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves," she said. "The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement."

Today, the "working-class movement" continues to empower women as we represent families and rebuild the middle class. We are making progress but we still have a ways to go. Consider the differences in pay: While women now earn 82 cents for every dollar a man earns, for union women the difference is 90 cents on the dollar, and closing faster than the rest of the population. Unions are a great leveler.

Women also are assuming more leadership roles -- not only in traditional professions like teaching and nursing, but also in the building trades and industrial unions. Elizabeth Shuler, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, comes out of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and is a former organizer who is leading the "next wave" outreach movement to young workers. As the first woman and youngest person elected to the top leadership of the labor federation, she is inspiring a new generation of women in the labor movement.

As we look back on Women's History Month, it's easy to look forward with great expectations. Women are still making a difference -- in the labor movement and throughout our society. Unions remain a solid pathway to success for America's women. We work mindful of what Dolores Huerta realized the day she decided to leave teaching and become an organizer: Unions work. Unions matter. Unions make a difference for the American people.