Fifty Years Ago, Union Women Founded New Organization to Fight for Equality

March 22, 2024

Fifty years ago today, 3,200 women gathered in Chicago to found the Coalition of Labor Union Women to fight for equality in their unions and in society. The UE NEWS, which dedicated a full two pages to coverage of the event, reported:

In two days of meetings which were charged with excitement over the historic nature of the gathering, 3200 women trade unionists gave an amazing demonstration of the needs and hopes of the women of factory, office, store and school.

The massive turnout — organizers only expected 2,000 — reflected the dynamic energy of the women’s movement at the time. A “Women’s Labor Conference” held in St. Louis the previous November had attracted an overflow crowd; UE International Representative Florence Criley, one of two keynote speakers at that event, reported that “The Teamsters’ Plaza main room was jam packed and altogether [it was] a very satisfactory meeting.”

Criley, who was based in Chicago and played an important role in organizing the CLUW conference, was also in regular contact with other women’s organizations in the area. These served as a source of organizing leads and, in some cases, “salts” (activists who get a job in a workplace with the intention of organizing a union). As the UE NEWS reported, only a little over 4 million of the 34 million women then in the workforce were in unions and “a major goal of CLUW is to help bring the unorganized into the labor movement.” The UE delegation at the founding convention included not only over 50 representatives of UE locals, but also members of UE organizing committees at unorganized factories across the midwest.

For older UE delegates, the founding of CLUW was also reminiscent of an earlier wave of women’s activism. Gladys McCullough of Local 190 in Chicago told the UE NEWS that the conference “brings back memories of the UE women’s conferences.” As historian and former UE member Lisa Kannenberg described in a 2009 article for the UE NEWS, UE women had been gathering to discuss their specific issues as women as far back as 1941, when Local 601 at the giant Westinghouse plant in East Pittsburgh organized a “Conference on Women’s Wages” that “drew 72 delegates from nine of District 6’s eleven locals.”

As mobilization for World War II drew more women into the workforce, and into UE, other districts followed suit, and a similar round of district women’s conferences in the early 50s culminated in the first-ever “National Conference on the Problems of Working Women,” hosted by UE in May 1953. These conferences, along with a concentrated effort to educate the entire union membership about the importance of fighting for women’s issues, resulted in real materials gains for UE women, “ranging from success in narrowing wage differentials to new training classes to upgrade women into skilled jobs.”

“Women work for the same reasons as men”

UE participants at the CLUW conference were, as the UE NEWS reported, proud of the union’s record of winning “Equal pay for equal work, opening up jobs long limited to men, [and] wiping out rates for women which were below that of common labor for men.”

However, the gains made by UE women in the electrical industry were just a drop in the bucket compared to the vast disparities faced by both organized and unorganized women workers. The UE NEWS noted, “Women’s median earnings last year were only 58.5 percent of what men earned, a shocking indictment of unequal treatment which this new organization hopes to overcome.” Later in the year, the UE NEWS pointed out that the gender wage gap had actually been increasing over the previous two decades — in 1955, women were making 63.9 percent of men’s earnings. (Currently, women make 82 percent of men’s earnings — a gap that has been steady for the past two decades.)

In addition to addressing wage disparities, conference attendees vowed to fight for child-care legislation — a demand that UE had raised as early as the 1940s. “Whenever child care legislation is passed it is vetoed,” said Addie Wyatt, the director of women’s affairs of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters union, who addressed the opening session. “Women work for the same reasons as men and if we have to work we have to have adequate day care for our children.”

“Opened up more opportunities for women to serve”

Although Wyatt cautioned delegates that “Our unions are not our enemies because we are ‘our union,’” CLUW also took aim at the lack of women leaders in the labor movement. According to conference organizers, although women made up approximately half of the membership of 26 international unions at the time, only 4.7 percent of those unions’ leadership positions were filled by women.

UE, despite its history of fighting for women workers, was not immune to this trend. District Ten President Trudi Southern, who attended the conference and was elected to the new organization’s national coordinating committee, was the only woman on the UE General Executive Board at the time. While UE had as many as 13 women on staff during World War II, that number had dwindled to a handful by the mid-70s.

One of those women, Amy Newell, recalled in 2017 that “It was really terrific to have an organization that was raising issues of women in their unions, as well as issues of women in the workplace.” Although Newell, who was hired in 1974, was not present at the founding convention, she represented UE on CLUW’s national board for several years in the early 1980s. In 1985, she was elected UE Secretary-Treasurer, becoming the first woman to hold a national office in a U.S. manufacturing union.

“I think it opened up more opportunities for women to serve in leadership in their unions at various levels,” said Newell. “There are [now] lots of unions headed by women, and that wasn’t true in the ’70s.”

At a caucus of the UE women in Chicago, Local 1012 President Mary McDaniel urged her fellow UE women to seek to become delegates to the UE convention. “There ought to be a way of getting more women elected,” she said. “We need this kind of representation at our conventions.”

Reflected at UE Convention

At the 39th UE convention, held later that year in New York City, McDaniel was pleased to see “more women at this convention than we have had in the past.” She was not alone. According to the UE NEWS, “Almost every delegate that spoke was able to report some progress in some aspect of the campaign for full equality [for women]; several noted the increase in the number of women delegates, and every woman who took the floor was either the president or held some other important office in the local or district she represented.”

Local 924 in Decatur, Indiana took up a special collection to send two women members to the convention after elections resulted in an all-male set of delegates. One of the women, Kate Fuhrman, held a job called “head man” on the motor assembly line. “They still call it ‘head man,’” Fuhrman explained to the UE NEWS, “because they are not used to having a woman do that job. I am the first one who has ever had it.” Fuhrman had worked at the plant for 19 years before she applied for the better-paying position. “I felt that I could do it as well as any man, so I applied for it.”

Reta Thornton, also from Local 924, told the UE NEWS that, “We have both learned at this convention that Kate’s story is typical. Because women are not encouraged to bid for the so-called ‘men’s jobs’, it takes a long time to do it even though they have the will to do it and know they can do the job well.”

Albert Fitzgerald, Mary McDaniel, and Addie Wyatt
CLUW Vice President Addie Wyatt, right, at the 39th UE Convention, with UE General President Albert Fitzgerald and delegate Mary McDaniel.

Addie Wyatt of the Meat Cutters, who had been elected vice chair of the national CLUW at the Chicago conference, was a guest speaker at the convention. Wyatt, who had also been a founding member of the National Organization for Women and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, got her start in the United Packinghouse Workers of America. The UPWA was a militant CIO union that had fought aggressively against racial and gender discrimination before succumbing to red-baiting in the late 1940s and then merging into the AFL’s Amalgamated Meat Cutters in 1968. (In 1979, the Meat Cutters merged with the Retail Clerks International Association to form the United Food and Commercial Workers.)

Wyatt noted the crucial role of organized labor in creating “a climate in which programs designed to advance the status of women can thrive and be fruitful,” and called the founding of CLUW “one of the most significant developments in the women’s movement” in recent years. She denounced the fact that 37 percent of women-headed families had incomes below the poverty level, and that the federal minimum wage (then $2 per hour) was not quite enough to lift a family of four above the poverty level. She called for doubling the minimum wage. (In 2024, a single wage-earner supporting a family of four would need to make over $15 per hour — more than twice the federal minimum wage of $7.25 — to lift their family above the federal poverty line.)

She pointed out that equal pay for equal work is not enough to address the wage gap between men and women, and called for requiring employers to provide training programs to give women access to better-paying jobs. Noting that the burden of unemployment falls more heavily on women, and especially on Black women, she called for a shorter work-week and a massive public works program. She also called for collective bargaining rights for hospital workers (who were not covered by the National Labor Relations Act until that year), domestic workers, and public-sector workers — all sectors of the economy that employed a large number of women.

“All working people must have the right to strike, to support their demands with the withdrawal of their labor,” Wyatt concluded. “Otherwise, they are simply slave laborers.”

“Independent of the AFL-CIO”

In her 2017 interview with the UE NEWS, retired UE Secretary-Treasurer Amy Newell pointed out that “It was very significant that it was independent of the AFL-CIO, so that it brought together women from many different kinds of unions, including the UE and others that weren’t in the AFL-CIO.” UE leaders such as Criley, Southern and Newell provided important leadership to the national organization, and the Bridgeport, Connecticut chapter was headed by UE Local 209 Vice President Rita Baynocky. UE’s national officers took a keen interest in the new organization, requesting regular reports from Criley and others.

CLUW chapters helped mobilize members of other unions to support UE struggles, as when the Chicago chapter brought members of the UAW, Teamsters, UFCW, AFSCME, AFT, the Newspaper Guild, and others to a 1982 picket of Litton Industries, part of Local 1180’s four-year struggle for a first contract at Litton’s South Dakota plant.

Independence from the AFL-CIO also allowed CLUW to formulate independent positions on issues like foreign policy, an area in which much of the American labor movement has traditionally taken direction from the federal government. The 1984 CLUW convention, in addition to passing resolutions demanding federally-funded child care, affirmative action and pay equity, also denounced the deployment of nuclear missiles in Europe and U.S. military intervention in Central America. Currently, CLUW is part of the National Labor Network for Ceasefire, and CLUW leaders have spoken at press conferences and rallies alongside UE leaders demanding an immediate, permanent ceasefire in Gaza.

“Full equality in all areas of life”

But perhaps the most important legacy of CLUW is that it encouraged women not only to run for office in their unions, but also to fight for recognition that women’s issues are union issues. While UE conventions had adopted a resolution on women’s rights every year since 1939, those resolutions began to address broader issues in the 1970s, adopting the union’s first position in defense of abortion rights in 1976. Women’s historian Sharon Hartman Strom noted in her Reader’s Companion to US. Women’s History that the resolution adopted at the 1979 convention, “Support Full Equality for Women,” was widely influential among other women in the labor movement. That resolution stated:

The fight for women’s rights and the fight for stronger unions are related; the same forces which are promoting “Right to Work” laws, and making all-out efforts to defeat unions, are also attacking women’s rights to equal pay, to Affirmative Action programs, and to safe, legal abortions.

Speaking on the resolution, Carole Delevigne of Local 262 said, “UE has traditionally supported the right of women to full equality in all areas of life. Well, if we want to ensure this equality we better back up our words with an active fight for women’s rights, and this includes the right of all women to a safe, legal, free abortion.” Dorothy Danahy, Local 332, spoke about her local’s successful efforts in winning pay upgrades for women workers, and Pat Jenkins, Local 623, praised the union for taking “the best possible stand” on women’s issues. Many men also spoke in favor of the resolution, including Local 618 President Ron Flowers, who described the successful walkouts conducted by women members of his local, and Alan Hart, Local 506, who challenged his union brothers to take sexual harassment in the workplace seriously, as “a real crisis … that was dividing our ranks.”

Although UE has played an important role in the fight for women’s equality since our early years, and in the formation of CLUW, we must not rest on our laurels. Recognizing that there is still work to be done, UE’s General Executive Board (which is currently about one-third women) has recently established a Women’s Leadership Program to promote women’s leadership in the union. In the words of that 1979 resolution, “By encouraging women to participate in and become leaders of the Union, we will strengthen the Union in its fight for the rights of all workers.”


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