In honor of Women’s History Month, observed in March, AFSCME celebrates some of our fiercest women labor leaders. Not only have their contributions set historical milestones within the labor movement, but the impact of their work continues to influence the organizing and advocacy efforts of today’s struggles.
Raised in Stockton, California, Dolores Huerta was exposed at an early age to the local farm worker community. She later became an elementary school teacher, but quickly grew frustrated over the economic disparities she witnessed among the children. She launched her career as an activist by fighting for economic improvements for Latinos.
A lifelong labor leader and civil rights activist, Huerta co-founded the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) union with Cesar Chavez. Together they organized the Delano grape strike of 1965. That resulted in a workers’ contract, for which Huerta was a lead negotiator. She is also responsible for the movement’s famous slogan, “Sí, se puede,” or “Yes, we can,” a rallying cry that lives on to this day.
Huerta has become a defining voice for the rights of workers, immigrants, and women. She was the first Latina to be inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993.
Lucy Gonzalez Parsons
Born into slavery in Virginia and raised in Texas in the 1850s, Parsons migrated with her husband, fellow socialist organizer and militant, Albert Parsons, to Chicago, where they would become outspoken labor activists, agitators, writers and intellectuals.
When her husband was wrongly convicted of playing a role in the Chicago Haymarket Riot of 1886, in which seven Chicago police officers died in a bomb blast, Parsons fought for a new trial, earning her the descriptor: “More dangerous than a thousand rioters.” After her husband’s death, Parsons remained a fervent labor agitator and a fighter against racial and capitalist oppression until her death in the early 1940s.
Mary G. Harris Jones, famously known as “Mother Jones,” was once referred to as “the most dangerous woman in America.” A fierce community organizer and activist who helped organize mill and mine workers in the late 19th and 20th centuries, Mother Jones coordinated many strikes and marches that often involved women and children.
Jones began her early career as a school teacher and dressmaker but after the death of her husband and four children, and the loss of her dress shop to the Great Chicago Fire, she became an organizer for the Knights of Labor and the United Mine Workers union. She passionately advocated for the abolition of child labor and was later affectionately referred to as “the miner’s angel” by coal miners and their families.
Born in Boston in 1880, Perkins attended Mount Holyoke College, which served as a source of inspiration for her future life as an activist. During a class trip to the mills along the Connecticut River, Perkins recalled: “I was horrified at the work that many women and children had to do in factories. There were absolutely no effective laws that regulated the number of hours they were permitted to work ... no provisions which guarded their health nor adequately looked after their compensation in case of injury.”