Chapter 12: Women and the Labor Movement

Working-class women, mostly ignored in popular histories of the feminist movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s, charted their own path toward liberation, and they did it at their workplaces and in their unions as well as in their communities. The single biggest source of inspiration for their struggles was probably the Civil Rights movement. Of course many of the key activists were active in other organizations including socialist groups and women’s organizations. But it is no exaggeration to say that without the massive collective effort of these hundreds of thousands of women, the gains made by the organized feminist movement would have been inconceivable.

Women played a decisive part in one of the most powerful labor upsurges in American history. They entered the workforce in large numbers in the ‘60s and ‘70s and were part of a demographic transformation of the U.S. working class that included new industries and job categories opening to black workers and other racial minorities. In modest numbers, women entered manufacturing work for the first time since the end of World War II. They were part of the massive labor upheavals that took place in these industries.

Women in traditionally female occupations – including domestic workers, office workers, hospital workers, teachers, and other service workers – also moved into struggle, using collective action to fight for economic demands as well as demands against the rampant workplace sexism present in many service sector female-dominated jobs.

Working-class women engaged in a feminist battle on their own terms, where the sexist, racist, and paternalistic norms that governed workplace relations were challenged in a movement that was a major contributor to the growing rejection of traditional sexist attitudes about the role of women. Radical women in the labor movement also frequently frequently had to challenge the leadership of their own unions to become more proactive in fighting for issues that affected women workers specifically. This took many forms including joining others to challenge existing leaderships in union elections.

A key battlefield was the organizing of the public sector where there was a much higher level of female employment than in manufacturing. The old industrial unions played an important role in this drive, sending experienced organizers and providing other resources in the ‘60s to help unions like the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). The building of these unions required a high level of militancy, sacrifice, and sharp battles. In Chicago, for example, the teachers went on strike nine times between 1969 and 1987.

Under new leadership in the mid-’60s, AFSCME moved from being a very conservative organization into one of the fastest growing in the country. By 1969, an average of 1,000 new workers were joining the union every day. A key step was racially integrating the union. As the union’s website describes it:

“AFSCME broke from earlier patterns of civil service reform and initiated a more militant form of unionization designed to achieve parity with private sector workers… AFSCME became known as a pioneer in aggressively recruiting women and blacks. In 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated while in Memphis, Tennessee to support a strike by the African-American sanitation workers’ union [part of AFSCME].”

Another major union in which women and particularly women of color played a decisive role was Local 1199, the health care workers’ union which began in New York City. In the late 1950s, 1199 set out to organize New York City’s Voluntary Hospitals with a workforce whose majority were black and Latino women. These workers were paid as little $32 for a 48-hour week. After waging a 46-day strike in seven key city hospitals, they won union recognition.

After winning other victories in New York in the ‘60s, the union sought to expand nationally: “Black women workers at two Charleston, SC hospitals paved the way for 1199’s national expansion. Under the slogan ‘Union Power, Soul Power’ 1199 formed a national organizing committee and asked Coretta Scott King to be its honorary chair” (, 2019).

Fighting Sexism on the Job

Important struggles around the working conditions faced by women workers also took place outside of the traditional unions, which often led to union-organizing drives.

The working conditions of flight attendants in the 1960s were a nightmare of female objectification: weekly weigh-ins with workers facing firing if they came in above the limit, maximum working age of 32, and advertising campaigns that practically invited passengers to sexually harass workers. Female flight attendants ran into a wall when they tried to get their male union leaders in the transport unions to take action against sexism on the job. They responded by creating a new organization, Stewardesses for Women’s Rights (SFWR), which developed a wide-ranging campaign of protest, legal remedies, and publicity with support from the mainstream feminist movement. In the course of this struggle, many flight attendants left the unions they had been in previously. Some organizers within the SFWR eventually drew the conclusion that labor unions were a better tool to win workers’ demands, and flight attendants organized their own new unions including the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA). The flight attendants’ unions used slow-downs, sick-outs, and strike threats, sometimes in conjunction with SFWR activities, and ended several of management’s most egregiously dehumanizing policies.

The corporate suites of the 1960s and 1970s were virtually entirely male, while a large workforce of low-paid women did the typing, filing, phone answering, and errand running. Clerical workers were viewed as “office wives” who were expected to fetch coffee and pick up lunch for male bosses. 9to5 was the most well known of several organizations that clerical workers set up to organize workers around both traditional workplace issues and feminist concerns. By the mid-1970s, groups organizing clerical workers were active in many major U.S. cities. They developed campaigns to fight for higher wages, opportunities for advancement, and against sexist hiring practices, often using provocative street protests. Like the flight attendants, clerical workers began to turn to labor unions to achieve their goals. 9to5 created a clerical workers’ union in Boston, and groups of clerical workers in other parts of the country staged unionization battles with particular success organizing university clerical workers.

Domestic workers, who were overwhelmingly black, faced the double oppression of racism and sexism on the job, and were highly exploited with virtually no legal labor protections. Domestic workers and labor activists began organizing in several cities in the 1960s to campaign for higher wages and to fight the racist, paternalistic relationship imposed on workers. By the early 1970s, many of these local groups came together under the umbrella of the National Council of Household Employees (NCHE). The NCHE groups served many functions: campaigning against low pay and abusive practices, educating workers about their rights, placing workers in jobs, and adjudicating grievances with employers. Despite the difficulties of organizing workers who were highly isolated, domestic worker organizations helped to win some federal legal protections and higher wages in certain regional markets.

Expanding into New Sectors

The pressure of activists to force the EEOC to implement title VII of the Civil Rights Act (prohibiting employers from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin) had successfully opened up new kinds of manufacturing jobs to women. In Newport News, Virginia, the Tenneco shipyard employed tens of thousands of workers, from several states in the Chesapeake Bay Area, primarily building and repairing U.S. Navy aircraft carriers and submarines. Starting in 1973, in accordance with new affirmative action guidelines, Tenneco, the largest private shipbuilder in the U.S., began hiring women as operatives in production at the shipyard. However, the majority of women and black workers who took these jobs because they were paid better than many other available jobs were excluded from higher-paying positions in the shipyards like mechanics and engineers.

Stuck in the lowest paid and hardest jobs in the yard, women responded enthusiastically to an effort by the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) to organize an independent union. One of these activists, Peggy Carpenter, recalled that “A lot of them [the men] moved because of the women standing up in the union…they followed us along.” In a little over a year they had collected enough union cards to trigger an NLRB monitored election. Despite fierce resistance from Tenneco, on January 31, 1978 they won, forming Local 8888 of the USWA to represent the roughly 16,000 workers at the shipyard — the largest NLRB election held at a single workplace in the 1970s.

Whereas workers at the Newport News shipyard were organizing in the same kind of large industrial shop that had been the center of union organizing in the 1930s, by the 1970s the rising percentage of the workforce in retail presented a new terrain for union organizing. In retail and grocery stores, workers separated into different departments might never talk to many of their fellow workers, despite being in the same store.

Founded in 1880, Woodward and Lothrop (better known as Woodies) was the largest independent retail and grocery chain in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. The company owned fourteen stores and two warehouses. They had successfully fended off repeated attempts by their workers to form an independent union until 1976 when workers approached Local 400 of the RCIA (Retail Clerks International Association) to represent them. To tackle this challenge, the organizing team for Local 400 divided the staff of over 200 organizers – most of whom were volunteers – into sixteen smaller teams, one for each workplace. Three-quarters of Woodies workers were women, and 27% were black. The makeup of the workforce was represented in those who stepped up to join the organizing team. Glenda Spencer-Marshall, a volunteer organizer, explained that women who worked at Woodies “decided they wanted more and decided that they would have to be the ones to get more.”

These volunteer organizers were granted a great degree of autonomy by Local 400 in their organizing work, and they were encouraged to find ways to get their fellow workers to participate in the union drive. Rank-and-file members were given bus fare to attend citywide union meetings where a democratic discussion was had over their first contract. They took the time to educate members about strike action, and were continuously grooming new potential shop stewards. In the union contract that was ratified, women won far-reaching demands that the EEOC hadn’t been able to deliver. Woodies was now required to promote existing workers to new higher-paying positions before looking to hire new workers. This broke through barriers in an industry where four-fifths of women retail workers were previously stuck in the lowest-paying jobs with next to no hope of advancement.

One of the most important victories of the movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s was the sense of empowerment that filtered down to a large section of working-class people. The women and black people who spearheaded the union organizing efforts we have described here were representative of the new wave of independent organizing that swept both the public and private sectors during the 1970s. They saw in organized labor a mechanism to effectively use their collective power to win both economic gains, and advance the social gains of the Civil Rights and women’s movement into their workplaces and communities.