“A Way Out of No Way: Women, Labor, and Justice Today” was the theme for The 17th Annual Faith-Labor Breakfast of the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice of South Central Wisconsin, February 13th, at the Bethel Lutheran Church in Madison.

The meeting opened with a Responsive Prayer For Justice.

Pray for those who are hungry. Pray harder for those who will not feed them.

Pray for those who struggle each week to pay their bills. Pray harder for the wealthy who do not care.

Pray for those who are homeless. Pray harder for those who deny them shelter.

Pray for the sick and lonely. Pray harder for those who will not give them comfort.

Pray for those who cry out for dignity. Pray harder for those who do not listen.

Pray for those oppressed by unjust wages. Pray harder for those who exploit them.

Pray for those who bear the yoke of prejudice. Pray harder for those who discriminate against them.

Pray for those whose basic needs are denied. Pray harder for public officials who cater to the greedy and ignore those bound unjustly.

Nan Enstad, Ph.D, UW—Madison Department of History, presented a history of the women’s labor movements beginning with November 24, 1909 when 20,000 girls and young women went on strike. The New York Shirtwaist Strike was led by Clara Lemlich and supported by the National Women’s Trade Union League of America (NWTUL). There was one labor union for 25,000 workers.

More information can be found in Professor Enstad’s book, Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure.

Many of these immigrants had belonged to labor unions in Europe where they learned labor organizing tactics.

Working conditions for these young immigrants were inhumane.

*** Work weeks of 65 hours often expanding to 75 hours with one break during the day.

***Often they were required to supply their own materials—needles, thread, and sewing machines. They were penalized if they made an error.

***Wages were $6.00 per week or less.


The above link is an excellent article about working conditions in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company.

***No government regulations to protect the workers.

The women didn’t speak English, didn’t have citizenship and couldn’t vote, lacked educational opportunities. They were disempowered and invisible.

Male unions saw them as a threat.

The Shirtwaist Strike ended in February 1910 with some improvements in wages, working conditions, and hours.

The horrific Triangle Shirtwaist Fire on March 25, 1911, in New York City’s garment district that killed 145 people, mostly women, led to a series of laws and regulations that began to address the safety of factory workers.

Additional strikes were held in Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and New York City.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s was always a workers’ union movement. Women played a critical role in the movement. African American women had been organizing for more than 20 years. Black women faced a “double handicap of race and sex.” Lest we forget, they often could not vote, especially in the South, they dealt with white supremacy, segregation, a lack of educational opportunities, and laws that undermined them. It was a form of apartheida system of institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination. In America today, the system is equally insidious.

During the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963, many black women wore their work uniforms. Women’s roles in the March were overshadowed by their male counterparts.

Although some women “Made A Way Out of No Way” during the 1900’s, we now see the rise of white supremacy, racism, discrimination, an ingrained prejudice against women, pay and retirement inequities, a deep fear of “others” and a host of other issues. Past movements have given us a “taste for justice.” “Justice is in our DNA.” (Professor Nan Enstad, Ph.D.)

Our work is not done and we cannot be complacent. The courage of these women will inspire us to continue the work they began.

A second article will follow recapping other speakers at the 17th Annual Faith-Labor Breakfast.