The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Women and Organized Labor in Early 20th-Century Boston

According to Tom Juravich, William F. Hartford, and James R. Green, authors of Commonwealth of Toil: Chapters in the History of Massachusetts Workers and their Unions (University of Massachusetts Press, 1996), the years around the turn of the 20th century were a time of growth for unions in Boston, both in terms of membership and political influence, with groups such as the American Federation of Labor and the Boston Central Labor Union gaining significant power. Unlike the earlier Knights of Labor and the later Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the AFL, which was primarily focused on craft unionism, largely excluded women, people of color, and unskilled workers. However, workers outside of the AFL’s focus did organize during this period, and women began working within the AFL itself in the second decade of the 20th century. These differing visions and practices within organized labor, and their connections to race, gender, and skill levels of workers, raise a variety of considerations for the analysis of this union’s activities and place within dynamic organized labor movements of the period.

The Boston Central Labor Union (Mass.) records at the MHS includes one volume of Cigar Factory Tobacco Strippers’ Union records, 1899-1904. The records of this Boston union of tobacco strippers, which was comprised entirely of women, offer an opportunity to investigate both the conditions for women working in manufacturing in Boston around the turn of the 20th century, as well as the actions taken by working women in order to exercise their collective strength.

Photograph of a page from 15 January 1900 Executive Board Meeting minutes, including an accepted "Motion made for a seal for the union bearing the words, Cigar Factory Tobacco Strippers Union No. 1 of Boston. Organized Dec. 1899.”


The Cigar Factory Tobacco Strippers’ Union formed in December 1899, and was affiliated with both the American Federation of Labor and the Central Labor Union. The records consist of meeting minutes for regular meetings, executive board meetings, and various special meetings. The minutes document the activities of the group over a period of several years. General union business included the distribution of funds for a variety of purposes, such as compensation for union officers, sick benefits for members, and support for strikers and labor unions around the country. The union also initiated organizing activities in order to bring in new members, called for boycotts of certain businesses, heard grievances from members relating to working conditions in their respective factories, and tasked committees with the investigations of these grievances.

One example of the union’s activities relates to a series of grievances involving the H. Traiser factory. In the 1901 Boston Register and Business Directory (Boston: Sampson & Murdock), Henry Traiser & Co. is listed as a Boston cigar business. Workers expressed various concerns relating to the dryness of stock, poor wages, and unjust firing of workers at various points in the C.F.T.S.U. meeting minutes. A committee, appointed at a 27 March Special Executive Board Meeting, met with Traiser about the grievances. In a 28 March 1901 Regular Meeting, the committee reported that Traiser claimed not to know of issues with the stock, but that he would address that issue. However, grievances were noted again in the minutes of a 6 May 1901 Executive Board Meeting. At 13 May 1901 Executive Board Meeting, another committee was organized to meet with Traiser, and a report on the meeting was given at a Special Executive Board Meeting two days later. The Traiser situation was further noted in the minutes of meetings on 20 May, 23 May, 27 May, and 28 May 1901.

Photograph of meeting minutes for a 31 May 1901 Special Meeting.


In a 31 May 1901 Special Meeting, grievances were again read relating to conditions at Traiser’s, resulting in a motion for the creation of a “committee of five . . . to use all possible means to settle all trouble in Traiser’s shop, failing in that they be empowered to order a strike,” which passed by vote of 104-20, with four additional ballots left blank. They listed the following demands of Traiser:

            Reinstatement of girls who were laid off.

            Obnoxious rules dispensed with.

            Stock in better condition.

At the 13 June 1901 regular meeting, the standing committee reported a willingness by Traiser to work them on all of the demands, including reinstating three workers who had been discharged. While similar grievances came up again in the minutes regarding Traiser’s and other plants, I did not see documentation in the volume of a strike at the factory, suggesting that, for the time being, the union was able to exert enough pressure in order to avoid a strike and obtain some concessions.

This volume of Cigar Factory Tobacco Strippers’ Union records is available here in the MHS library for research, along with the entire collection of Boston Central Labor Union (Mass.) records.


permalink | Published: Wednesday, 22 March, 2017, 4:05 PM