International Workers Day:

BIPOC Women of the Labor Movement 

Written by Alejandra Tolley & Aronya Waller

—Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw “It’s not about supplication, it’s about power. It’s not about asking, it’s about demanding. It’s not about convincing those who are currently in power, it’s about changing the very face of power itself.”

Women’s voices in the BIPOC labor movement have been unacknowledged for more than a hundred years. Many times, when the labor movement is discussed, white union leaders and white immigrants are mentioned. It seems like BIPOC women are listed as a footnote instead of acknowledging that they helped build the movement during its infancy. These women fought for the rights of domestic, factory, garment, and farmworkers. They fought for justice, equality, healthier working conditions, better pay, and immigration rights. The efforts of the BIPOC communities to unionize helped lay the foundation for the civil rights movement. It has not been until recently that we have learned the true impact of BIPOC women within unions and the labor movement. The activism of these women led to fairer wages and better working conditions that have benefited all racial and ethnic groups. As we reflect on some of the labor activists, let us be inspired by their perseverance and courage to stand up for their coworkers.

There is still more work to be done. Just look at the national wage gaps to see that the fight is not over. According to the National Partnership for Women & Families: 

The gender wage gap is a measure of just how far our nation still has to go to ensure that women can participate fully and equally in our economy – and it is widest for many women of color. Among women who hold full-time, year-round jobs in the United States, white, non- Hispanic women are paid 79 cents, Black women are typically paid 63 cents, Native American women 60 cents, Latinas just 55 cents, and Asian American and Pacific Islander women are paid as little as 52 cents, as Burmese women are, and just 85 cents overall for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men.

These wage gaps were not based on occupation, industry, or education level.  Therefore, we still need BIPOC union representatives and organizers who understand our needs and experiences. Do not let the BIPOC labor activists’ stories end with a period; rather, let it be a semicolon to represent that we are continuing the fight for BIPOC labor rights.

"International Workers Day, Working People United Across Borders, We Rise!," AFL-CIO poster promoting May Day, 2017. AFL-CIO Posters, Broadsides, and Art Collection.

ILGWU members march through Chinatown to urge the remaining shops to sign the new contract, following the rally on July 15, 1982. Photo courtesy of The Kheel Center ILGWU Collection, Cornell University.

Photo found at: A House Divided: African American Workers Struggle Against Segregation

Maida Springer Kemp

Maida Springer Kemp, affectionately known as Mama, was born in Panama to a Barbadian father and a Panamanian mother. Springer Kemp moved to Harlem, NY when she was seven years old. While she was still in school, she worked in the garment factories during the summer. She returned to working in a garment factory during the Great Depression to help her household. Yet, she only made mere pennies in the sweatshop. After hearing a radio address in 1929 by A. Philip Randolph, Springer Kemp was inspired to join Local 22 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) in hopes of improving the working conditions in the garment industry. Springer Kemp knew the plight of being a Black worker, but Randolph opened her eyes to the barriers that all workers faced. She moved through the ranks of Local 22, ILGWU, and the AFL-CIO because she understood the hard life of a garment worker and had compassion for everyone she represented. She was the first Black woman to represent American labor abroad in England, started the first women’s labor movement in Turkey, advised new unions throughout multiple African countries, and became a consultant for the Asian American Free Labor Institute. In addition to fighting globally for women’s rights, civil rights, and workers’ rights, Springer Kemp also participated in voter registration and advocated for better education in the United States and abroad.

(Photo from Harvard.Edu)

Lucy Parsons 

Lucy was a radical anchro-communist leader who focused her activism on direct action toward systemic injustices. Lucy and her husband, Albert Parsons, mobilized and organized multiple worker's rights events to engage industrial workers all throughout Chicago. They pioneered a "mass worker's revolution" that was the blueprint for the May Day strike. Lucy was often referenced as "more dangerous" than her husband because of her intense refusal to be the house's caretaker. She was known to write for multiple anarchist publications such as The Socialists and The Alarm, published by The International Working People's Association - a union that Lucy and Albert co-founded. Lucy wrote about the abusive systemic treatment women and Black Americans faced while working in factories, continuously fought against racist lynchings, protested for women's suffrage, and was a speaker for the Working Women's Union. Unfortunately, Albert Parson was sentenced to death when they used him as a scapegoat for the Haymarket Affair, a riot that resulted in multiple deaths of police and protestors. After her husband's death, Lucy continued to be a leading force in the Chicago labor movement. She continued to dedicate herself to labor organizing while maintaining her clothing shop and raising her two children. In her last days organizing in the 1940s, you could still spot her handling out socialist and communist pamphlets. Up until she was 80 years old, she kept reminding labor activists never to stop until liberation and justice were reached.

(Photo from Black Past)

Jessie Lopez de la Cruz 

Jessie Lopez de la Cruz grew up in a family of Mexican migrant workers and became a field worker at only five years old. She witnessed and suffered grueling labor and poor living conditions. This exploitation of Mexican farm workers was partially due to the government’s exclusion of farm workers in its protection of industrial laborers, as well as racial and ethnic discrimination. As a teenager, she wanted to fight for the rights of her community and farm workers. Lopez de la Cruz became one of the early leaders of the United Farm Workers (UFW), a union that brought national awareness to the injustices of farm workers and immigrant laborers. She is best known for leading the successful campaign to ban short-handled hoes. This tool had a 24-inch handle forcing workers to bend over for long periods of time, which led to debilitating back injuries. Lopez de la Cruz was also politically active. She was a delegate at the 1972 Democratic National Convention, and she remained a political and labor rights activist throughout her life. Although she was UFW’s first female recruiter and one of its first female organizers, she did not gain national recognition until after her death in 2013. 

(Photo from Persea Books)

Dorothy Lee Bolden 

In 1968, Dorothy revolutionized the labor movement in Atlanta that quickly spread throughout the nation. She founded the National Domestic Workers Union (NDWU), A labor union that focused on improving working conditions and demanded better wages for Black women garment workers. As a garment worker herself for over 40 years, she spent her time connecting with other domestic workers on her commute. Bolden would listen to the similarities and disparities that Black women faced in the domestic industry compared to white women and began to mobilize. During that summer, several hundreds of women gathered to form NDWU - now known as the longest surviving organization of domestic workers. The NDWU not only secured higher wages for Black women within its first two years, but they also made sure they were systemically protected by their employers by ensuring they enrolled in their social security program. It also formed a training program that would teach Black mothers how to drive, attain child care, and eldercare. 

Bolden's dedication to Black liberation extended beyond the garment industry. Before creating the NDWU, she also organized and protested for better education for Black youth, school desegregation, voting rights, and housing for her community. Her contribution to the labor movement transformed rights for Black Americans and is one of the women that we celebrate today and always.

(Photo from Black Past)

Connie Ling 

Connie Ling was born in the Philippines and lived in Hong Kong before immigrating to the United States in 1967. She fled with her family due to political turmoil in Mindanao, Philippines. After just 3 weeks of arriving in New York, she began working as a garment worker. Although the conditions varied by shop, most of the buildings there were old, neglected, and overcrowded. Unions were needed to protect workers from receiving pay significantly below minimum wage and ending the hazardous health conditions due to dehydration, long hours, poor ventilation. When Ling got a job in a union factory, she was asked to become a union representative because she was not scared to be outspoken. She later joined Local 23-25 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union as a staff member to help represent and organize workers in Chinatown. Ling was one of the primary organizers of the 1982 New York Chinatown Strike, one of the most significant Asian-American worker strikes. About 20,000 garment workers, primarily women, marched down the streets of Lower Manhattan demanding work contracts, better working conditions, higher wages, and respect for the workers. The strikes led to improved working conditions, including hiring bilingual staff to interpret for workers and management, providing English-language classes, and offering van services for workers. After the strikes, Ling helped co-found the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, the first national organization for Asian Pacific American union members. She continued her activism by helping seniors, supporting political activities, and assisting with voter registration.

(Photo from Worker Stories)

Emma Tenayuca 

"La Pasionaria de Texas'' is how Emma is remembered in her community of San Antonio, Texas. She advocated for labor rights starting at the age of 16 and followed in her grandparent's footsteps by getting heavily involved with local politics. At her young age, Emma was one of the protestors arrested for joining a picket line of women protesting against Finck's Cigar Company, where they were experiencing poor working conditions. During that time, it was infrequent for a Mexican-Amerian to speak out against systemic abuse. Still, Emma was valiant and made sure to implement change in her community wherever she can. In 1935, She became involved with the Communist League, which led her to be a part of the Communist Party. Shortly after, she joined the Workers Alliance of America (WAA), where she spearheaded several protests and became one of the most valued and influential members. Her work in WAA focused on supporting laborers that were impacted the most by the depression. In 1938, She spearheaded a strike and spoke on behalf of over 12,000 pecan shellers, most of them consisting of women, who demanded better pay and safer working conditions, which they achieved due to that massive event. Emma is remembered for her being outspoken and resilient when it was the most dangerous and someone who empowered a whole generation of new labor activists in San Antonio today. 

(Photo from Americans All )

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