“Well behaved women seldom make history.”
This well-worn adage is no doubt true, but so too is its opposite. History is written for a purpose and, all too often, that purpose is to justify the status quo as a historical inevitability. Those women and men who defy the expectations of their time, who fight too often and too well against the injustices of the day, are mysteriously forgotten by those who write our history. In this way, women’s contributions to and leadership of the organized labor movement, though lionized within the movement itself, have largely escaped public consciousness.
Indeed, women led the battle for industrial democracy — even before they won the right to vote.
Perhaps the best known labor leader is Mother Jones. Born Mary Harris, Jones was an Irish immigrant who lost her husband and all four of her children to yellow fever and didn’t begin her advocacy until her 50s.
But as the Industrial Revolution took hold, as wages fell to subsistence levels, and men, women, and children worked long hours in dangerous conditions she began organizing — and continued to do so well into her 90s. She traveled up and down the country, persuading miners and …
The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) leaves no doubt about its purpose. Enacted in 1935, it was set against a backdrop of decades of intense and often violent labor strife. Recall the massacre of striking coal miners at Ludlow, Colorado (1914); the bloody Battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia (1921), which pit miners against the militia; and the West Coast Longshoremen’s Strike (1934) over union representation, which revealed organized workers’ enormous power over the nation’s economy.
The NLRA was designed to minimize strife by requiring employers to recognize employees’ efforts to engage in “mutual aid and protection”; adjudicating conflict so as to avoid direct action; and, to quote from the act itself, by “encouraging practices fundamental to the friendly adjustment of industrial disputes … and by restoring equality of bargaining power between employers and employees.”
Employers, naturally, prefer to deal with their workers one on …