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The Struggle for Industrial Freedom

June 12, 1911 — Biennial Convention of the National Women’s Trade Union League of America, Boston MA


Fellow Workers and Friends: We have met in this our Third Biennial Convention to consider and advance the solution of the greatest problem of this generation. Upon our ability as a people to answer to the demand for industrial justice, depends the future of America. The world-old struggle between human slavery and human freedom is being fought out in this age on the battlefields of industry. We are beginning to understand that unless we win industrial freedom we cannot long maintain either religious or political liberty. A free church and a free state cannot endure side by side with a despotic workshop. Men cannot work as serfs under a feudal despotism six days in the week and on the seventh live as freemen.

Present-day industrial conditions deny to thousands the bare right to work and require other thousands to work long hours for little pay. In shop and factory and mill all over our country women are working under conditions that weaken vitality and sap moral fibre — conditions that are destructive alike of physical health and mental and moral development. These conditions if permitted to continue will destroy the ideals and promise of our individual and national life. Long hours, small pay, despotic rules and foremen, overshadowed by the haunting fear of losing one’s job, with consequent hunger, cold and bitter want, do not make for the development of free men and free women.

Cause for Such Conditions.

While our day’s work is in the main directed to the immediate aspects and demands of this great struggle, we cannot act wisely nor understand its significance fully unless we keep in mind the underlying cause for these conditions. We should know why men and women must fight for bread — even in America. We should know why it is that the “bread line” lengthens in the richest city of the richest nation in the world. We should understand that there is a direct relation between the monopoly control of natural resources and our disinherited sisters in the sweatshop.

Surrounded as we are to-day in our cities by brick and mortar, stone and cement, and far from the living green things of the earth, it is difficult for us to remember the ancient commandment: “The profit of the earth is for all,” and to recall that “the earth is to yield her increase in green herb for the service of men and bread to strengthen man’s heart.”

Special Call to the Women of Our Country.

The nature of the attack of modern industrial despotism upon the integrity and promise of our individual and national life is such as makes a special call upon the women of our country, and it seems to have been reserved for this generation to work out new standards of social justice and develop a new basis for our industrial civilization. Freedom, maternity, education and morality — all the blessed and abiding interests of childhood and the home — are in issue in this supreme struggle. All women who honor their sex and love their country should unite with us and our working sisters in the struggle for industrial freedom.

The Social Gain of the Union Shop.
One of the chief social indictments of the non-union workshop is its tendency to destroy originality and initiative among the workers. Long hours under despotic control, high subdivision of labor with consequent monotony of toil tend to register permanent reactions of stolid submission, unreasoning repetition and isolated personality in the minds of the workers. By the same token, the chief social gain of the union shop is not its generally better wages and shorter hours, but rather the incentive it offers for initiative and social leadership, the call it makes through a common industrial relationship and a common hope, upon the moral and reasoning faculties, and the sense of fellowship, independence and group strength it develops. In every workshop of say thirty girls there is undreamed of initiative and capacity for social leadership and control — unknown wealth of intellectual and moral resource. The union brings into exercise these powers and uses them for the benefit of the group, thus stimulating and increasing the individual and group life. These mighty social powers that industry can engender and release for our social life are possible only under conditions of industrial democracy, i.e., in the union shop. Just as under a despotic church and a feudal state the possible power and beauty of the common people was denied expression, so under industrial feudalism the intellectual and moral powers of the workers are slowly choked to death, to the incalculable loss of the individual and the race. It is easy to kill; it requires a great spirit as well as a great mind to arouse the dormant energies, to vitalize them and to make them creative forces for good. Who answers to the call?

Industrial Legislation.

In the splendid march of industrial legislation there are two dangers of the first importance. The one is judicial nullification. The decision of the New York Court of Appeals which annulled the women’s compensation law of that state is typical, as is also the decision of the Supreme Court of Tennessee, declaring unconstitutional an amendment to the state’s child labor law, making it unlawful to employ children under 14 years of age in factories, mines and workshops. There is just on effective reply to this grave social menace, and this is the power in the people of the recall. All enlightened friends of social progress, as well as all union men and women, should make insistent demands for the power of the recall. Its application to the judiciary is the most important function, and should be insisted upon at all times and places. Meeting as we do in Boston it is well to bring to mind the theory of government upon which our re public was founded by reading Section V. of Part 1 of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts:

“V. All power residing originally in the people, and being derived from them, the several magistrates and officers of government, vested with authority, whether legislative, executive or judicial, are their substitutes and agents, and are at all times accountable to them.”

The other danger is inefficient and partial administration of industrial legislation. Many people think that when a law is passed the work is all done, while in fact it has just begun. The best law neglected or partially enforced may become a distinct injury to the workers rather than a benefit. Such legislation can be used for graft and petty oppressions of many sorts. Two general difficulties arise in the enforcement of industrial legislation. The one is the inadequacy of factory inspection department resources and the other is indifference or favoritism on the part of the inspectors. Women workers and their friends should make a special effort to secure the thorough and impartial enforcement of all factor legislation. In this connection it is well to emphasize the fact that the best engine ever yet devised for the enforcement of industrial legislation is the union factory or shop. There is no system of inspection nor good will that can produce results equal to the living interest in the protections of such legislation of the worker in the shop. Persons who suffer in their daily lives the deprivations, injuries or dangers due to no-enforcement of labor laws are the most efficient agencies for inspection and report. But, be it ever remembered, it is the union worker alone who can secure this protection, she alone who can afford to become a member of this Voluntary Social Police. Many instances have come to our knowledge of the discharge of non-union girls for seeking the enforcement of labor laws. In the annual report of the factory inspector of one of our largest industrial states, the complaints of violations of industrial legislation from union workers exceeded by five times all other sources combined of such information.


Woman suffrage.

Extensions of the limitation of hours in each day and per week of working women.

Compensation for industrial accidents.

State banking laws for the protection of the savings of the workers.

Control and supervision of employment agencies.

A permanent law enforcement committee to be appointed by each local league.

A legal minimum wage law for sweated industries.

This recommendation was embraced in the report and recommendations of the committee on legislation in the last biennial convention in 1909. The time is ripe for this legislation, and a proper bill should be introduced into the General Assembly of some one of the more free and progressive states, preferably either California, Oregon, or Wisconsin. The presence of the power of recall of the judiciary will doubtless have much to do with the maintenance of the constitutionality of any such legislation.

Industrial education of the children of the people should be provided free to all children on equal terms under public maintenance and control The instruction given should embrace sound information concerning the value of the labor power of the worker and the best methods of protecting and selling that power at the highest price.

As the most effective and democratic machinery for securing the enactment of the popular will into law, the initiative and referendum is recommended for workers and all the friends of freedom.


Friends, do you remember Tyndall calling our attention to some crystals which have lain hidden in the earth for ages, with the potency of light locked up within them? And, is it not because we believe, nay, because we know that the potency of light, that the power of life, that the spirit of God is hidden in each human heart, that we are seeking to set it free? This is our faith. Here we find our common purpose and our common hope, and together with courage and devotion we will work towards its achievement.



Source:  Life and Labor: A Monthly Magazine, September 1911, Vol. 1, Number 9 (Chicago: National Women’s Trade Unions League), 1911, pp. 278-280.