Women-Led Unions of the Seattle Labor Movement, 1900-1920

A number of women-led unions of traditionally female occupations emerged in the decades leading up to the Seattle General Strike of 1919. Waitresses, laundry workers, garment workers, telephone operators, lady barbers, and domestic workers all organized during this time, demanding union recognition, higher wages, humane working conditions, and a shorter workday. 

These unions gained momentum from the progressive leadership of the Seattle Central Labor Council which was generally more left-leaning than its national counterpart, the American Federation of Labor. Leading up to the 1920s, the SCLC increasingly supported women’s efforts to organize, allowing women to serve in leadership positions on the council, and granting charterstypically issued by international unions and the AF of L.

Employment opportunities for women, primarily white women, increased during World War I as the Seattle economy boomed and large numbers of white working-class men and women moved to the city in search of work. The movement of white men into higher paying jobs and the military created a labor shortage in a number of industries including food service and hospitality. High turnover in restaurants, laundries, and hotels, gave women-led unions leverage in negotiating with their employers who needed to keep these jobs filled. 

There were limits to this progressive era of women-led organizing in Seattle, however. These unions, led by white women, also discriminated against Japanese and Black workers, barring them from union membership and advocating against patronizing Asian-owned businesses. Nonetheless, when the time came for the strike vote in February 1919, the Waitresses, Hotel Maids, Telephone Operators, and Garment Workers Unions, went on strike in solidarity with the Metal Trades Council and continued to organize for more just workplace rights in the years to come.