With swelling pride, I honk my horn and give the women a thumbs up. This morning’s drive took me past four schools where teachers, predominantly women, are on strike. As a teacher for eight years, I know it’s a hard job. Teachers don’t get paid enough, and now many in local districts are on strike.
Rose Schneiderman knew the importance of striking. Her mother, a struggling widow in New York City with four children, fed her family with charity food baskets. In 1895, Schneiderman left school at age 13 to earn money.
In 1903, while working in abysmal conditions at a factory, 21-year-old Schneiderman and a partner applied for a charter from the United Cloth and Cap Makers Union. Leaders told them to organize 25 women. They did it within days.
Schneiderman was an organizer of what was at the time the largest strike of American women, the “Uprising of 20,000.” In November, 1909, Jewish women in their teens and early twenties went on strike for eleven weeks. They were protesting terrible wages, long working days, and horrible conditions at shirtwaist factories.
The women had to be strong. In one month, the police arrested 723 people, with 19 sentenced to the workhouse. The average bail was a $2,500, a significant amount at the time. Even a 10 year old was sentenced without testimony to five days in the workhouse for allegedly assaulting a strike-breaker.
The women were victorious, for most companies signed contracts with benefits including a standard work week of 52 hours with four paid holidays per year.
Schneiderman later became friends with Eleanor Roosevelt and was the only woman on President Franklin Roosevelt’s Labor Advisory Board. She played a key role in shaping labor laws in industries which had predominately women.
Schneiderman knew that striking is unpleasant work. Sometimes, though, it’s the only way you change things.