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Trabajadoras: A Union Voice for Working Women

Trabajadoras is the Spanish word for Working Women. Today was an important day for Latina Working Women. Not necessarily a happy day. But an important day.

Because an organization that fights for them, The Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, released a first-of-its-kind report on the working world of Latinas in our country and the challenges they face. It’s not a pretty picture.

Trabajadoras: Challenges and Conditions of Latina Workers in the United States has stark graphs of statistics that clearly show the high poverty rates; the low education attainment; low homeowner rates; the dismal employment ratios; lack of health insurance and any sort of retirement plans of Latinas.

The report is not a cry for pity or charity. It’s a call to action.

We ignore the reality of these numbers to our peril. To our communities’ peril. To the country’s peril. These women are hardworking, talented people with as much potential as anyone on the planet. Why are the numbers so astoundingly headed in the wrong direction? Many reasons.

Many are immigrants. The language is often a barrier. Many come from generational poverty and drop out of school to help provide an income to their families. If they, or someone in their families does not have the proper documentation to be here, they can often become victims of extortion and even sexual harassment and violence from their own bosses.

They are many times too frightened to report abuse and unsafe working conditions or bosses who take advantage of them making them work overtime with no pay.

When I read the report, I thought about the myth we’ve all comfortably believe: Today’s worker is protected from discrimination, exploitation and abuse. There are contracts and laws that protect today’s worker. It’s not like the bad old days of robber barons who treated their workers like disposable pieces of some factory machine.

I mean, it’s not 1911. 101 years ago this very month, New York City experienced the single worst workplace tragedy in the city’s history up to September 11, 2001. The Triangle Waist Company made women’s clothing and employed hundreds of young women immigrants from Europe. They were poor. They spoke little English. They were willing to work hard, but there was little work available, so they took the jobs few others would take.

And their bosses squeezed every drop of work from them. They were paid very little. They were given no breaks. They were made to endure long hours in stifling rooms with no ventilation. Doors were locked to prevent them from leaving their positions during work hours.

So when a fire broke out, the young women were trapped. Many jumped from the 8th floor to their deaths. Others were burned alive. The owners had violated no laws. They were not held accountable in any way for the lives or deaths of these women.

But the horrendous tragedy burned in the conscience of Americans. Churches, women’s groups, but most particularly unions took up the cause of protecting working people from every having to suffer such a tragedy again.

Individuals organized unions to bargain the right to a safe work place and fair pay. Individually, they were powerless. Collectively, they could stand up to those of wealth and power. Owners didn’t like having to bargain. Politicians didn’t like it when unified voices of the working poor came together to demand laws to protect them from abuse.

But like it or not, the organized, collective voices of the poor, disenfranchised and exploited workers were heard and became a powerful force for good in every workplace.

Today, every American worker – secretaries, cooks, executives, teachers, custodians, computer technicians, accountants, waiters… all of us, whether we belong to a union or not, benefit from the legacy of those first brave women and men who decided enough was enough. Those people who organized themselves into our first unions left us all amazing gifts.

We have an 8-hour day thanks to American unions. We get paid extra for overtime. We have protections against discrimination for our age, our gender, our race, our religion. We have protections against health and safety dangers.

None of the things we take for granted today came without a fight, and it was organized unions who took up that fight.

Today, the fight continues.

Trabajadoras are too often the Triangle Factory workers of today.

Without a collective voice, their tragedies occur daily with no one to hear and no one to help. The problem is the same as it was 100 years ago. So is the solution: Organize, hermanas.

Organize.

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One Comment

  1. iea-nea library gal says:

    There is an excellent YA fiction book by Auch called Ashes of Roses that tells the story of a young Irish immigrant working in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory at the time of the fire. The subplot is a serious look at the work of those encouraging workers to band together by joining/forming labor unions. Powerful read that reflects on the tragedy and portrays the positive work of those who literally risked their lives to organize workers.

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