Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

She was a leader of the American labor movement

Premiere: 5/20/2020 | 00:10:59 |

Rose Schneiderman began working in a factory at age 16, and after experiencing unsafe work conditions and unequal pay first-hand, helped organize an all-women's chapter of a hat makers’ union. She became president of the National Women's Trade Union League, and an advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, informing many of his New Deal labor policies.

About the Episode

Rose Schneiderman (1882-1972), a Jewish immigrant from Poland, began working as a cap-maker at a factory in the Lower East Side of New York City at age 16. After a fire at the factory, she helped organize the first female-led chapter of the United Cloth, Hat, Cap and Millinery Workers Union, previously an all-male union. This launched what would become her lifelong fight to improve wages and safety standards for American working women. Following the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, she drew public attention to unsafe work conditions, and advocated for the passage of the New York state referendum of 1917 that gave women the right to vote. Schneiderman is credited with popularizing the phrase “Bread and Roses,” a central rallying cry of the American labor movement indicating a worker’s right to something more than a subsistence living. In 1926, she was elected president of the National Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL), a post she retained until her retirement in 1950. She was friends with Eleanor Roosevelt and a consultant to Franklin D. Roosevelt, increasing their awareness of working-class women’s labor politics. In 1933, Schneiderman was the only woman to serve on the National Recovery Administration’s Labor Advisory Board, helping to construct many New Deal labor policies.

Interviewees: historian Hasia Diner, Paul And Sylvia Steinberg Professor of American Jewish History at New York University and author of Her Works Praise Her: A History of Jewish Women in America From Colonial Times to the Present; and labor activist Ai-jen Poo, Executive Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance.


She was not only a labor organizer, she was a leader in the suffrage movement.

Ensuring that laws are more democratic and protected more people - way ahead of her time.

1898, New York, New York. 16-year-old Rose Schneiderman worked as a seamstress in a hat-making factory.

Many of the garments were produced in sweatshops.

There was no such thing as an eight-hour day. If the employer said, 'I need this number of garments produced by the end of the day,' people just stayed and worked.

When a fire destroyed the factory, the employer forced Schneiderman and her fellow workers to buy new sewing machines out of their own paychecks.

It just infuriated her and set her on her course towards seeing that unions were the only solution.

'We were helpless; no one girl dared stand up for anything alone.

It dawned on me that we girls needed an organization.'

Rose Schneiderman was born in 1882 in Saven, Poland to Jewish parents.

The family moved to New York when Schneiderman was about 5 years old, in one of the largest waves of immigration in U.S. history.

Two million or so East-European Jews started migrating in about the 1870s, into the 1920s.

Most of them came because of the economic possibilities in the garment industry.

Like many Jewish immigrants, the Schneiderman's took up residence in the tenements of the Lower East Side.

These apartments were crammed with people, disease was rife, very poor sanitation, it was pretty grim life.

In 1903, Schneiderman formed an all women's chapter of a hat makers' union, and later joined the newly-founded Socialist Party of America.

In the garment industry, men and women worked together, which had a very profound impact on the consciousness of women because they could see they were producing the same number of garments as the male worker next to them and they were getting a lower pay.

In 1905, Schneiderman led a citywide nonviolent strike against pay inequality that resulted in raises for women hat makers.

'Each boss does the best he can to squeeze his workers to the last penny.

We must stand together to resist.'

This brought her to the attention of a group of white middle-class, mostly Christian women, who had already formed the Women's Trade Union League.

And they saw she was a natural leader.

Women have always been on the front lines of the labor movement.

It's just that we haven't always been recognized in that leadership role.

My name is Ai-jen Poo and I'm the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. I started my organizing in the 90s.

And I just thought, this growing low wage service economy was where many immigrant women, especially women of color, were working.

And so if we were going to change things, we would have to start there.

And we came together in 2001 across all these different communities to start organizing.

Schneiderman's efforts to organize women in the garment industry helped build momentum for the 1909 'Uprising of the 20,000.'

They were demanding wages, predictable hours, and some level of control over the work environment.

Wealthy members of the Women's Trade Union League, popularly known as 'The Mink Brigade,' picketed alongside garment workers, to help curb police violence.

They get on the front pages of the newspapers, and their cause becomes everyday news in the city of New York.

The 11-week strike resulted in most garment factories signing protocols to improve work conditions and safety standards.

However, some of the factories didn't sign the protocols.

One of the worst industrial accidents in U.S. history was a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911, that killed nearly 150 garment workers.

Most of the women died because the doors were locked from the outside, and they jumped out the windows.

For Rose Schneiderman, the fire was not just an abstract tragedy.

She knew people who had been killed.

'This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city.

Every week, I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers.

Too much blood has been spilled.'

Realizing that working women needed more than unions to gain political power, Schneiderman co-founded the Wage Earners' League for Women's Suffrage in 1911.

It was an effort to take the issues of socialism and feminism to say that the two have to be pursued together.

She gives this how powerful speech, which gives the women's labor movement the imagery of, we're working for bread - our wages - but we're working for roses - our human dignity.

'What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist.

The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.

Help give her the ballot to fight with.'

Her rallying cry remains one of the most indelible mottos of the American labor movement.

Her enemies, essentially the manufacturers and the conservative trade unionists, saw how effective she was and tried to smear her.

New York state granted women the vote in 1917.

Through her suffrage work, Schneiderman met fellow labor organizer Maud O'Farrell Swartz.

They began a 25-year friendship.

Historians have been pondering what the nature of that relationship was.

Many single women who didn't marry were involved with other women in relationships, which later generations may say, ah, they were lesbians, but I don't think anybody really knows.

In 1918, Schneiderman became president of the New York branch of the Women's Trade Union League, and its national president in 1926.

She served in both positions, organizing women workers, until her retirement in 1949.

The next really important development in her life was she met Eleanor Roosevelt.

Which brings Rose Schneiderman in contact with Franklin Roosevelt.

And he turns to Schneiderman as one of his advisors.

When he became President of the United States in 1933, FDR appointed Schneiderman as the only woman on his New Deal labor advisory board.

She realized that the issues of labor and workers' rights cannot be settled outside of the political arena.

It wasn't enough to negotiate with the boss of this factory or that factory.

It required systematic restructuring of society.

Schneiderman played an important role in shaping New Deal legislation during the Great Depression, including laws for minimum wage, the eight-hour workday, and the right of workers to unionize.

'It thrills me that I had a part in bringing about monumental changes in the lives of working men and women.'

From 1937 to 1944, Schneiderman served as New York state's secretary of labor, where she advocated equal pay for women, and protections for domestic and service workers When labor laws were put into place in the 1930s, farm workers and domestic workers were explicitly excluded.

She played a role in ensuring that laws protected more groups of people.

Right now, we have passed legislation in nine States and just introduced a national domestic worker bill of rights into Congress that will offer some of the basic protections that the rest of us take for granted: real investments in training, protection from sexual harassment and discrimination, paid time off, including national holidays.

It will be a challenge to pass this law, but the beautiful thing is that it is inspiring workers all over the country to stand up and get involved.

In 1961, Schneiderman attended the 50th-anniversary commemoration of the Triangle Factory Fire. She died in 1972 at age 90.

Rose Schneiderman wanted to change the world.

The kind of America which develops out of the New Deal really owes her.

It was women like Rose Schneiderman who transformed jobs during that industrial moment, where people were literally dying in factories, and created an era of generational prosperity.

That's what organizers do: democratize power.

'I know from experience, it is up to the working people to save themselves.

And the only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.'


PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.