By Albert H. Teich/Shutterstock.com
To launch her campaign, back in January, Sen. Elizabeth Warren had a number of locations to choose from. She could have started in Norman, Oklahoma, the setting of her ragged-edge-of-the-middle-class origin story, where her prairie populism could have been brought to the fore. She spent years in Houston, Philadelphia, and Boston, too, all chock full of their own useful imagery for a campaign. Instead, she chose Lawrence, Massachusetts, for her opening salvo, linking her campaign to the Bread and Roses strike, led in 1912 largely by radical immigrant seamstresses and other garment workers.
It would be the first of three speeches setting up what Warren sees as the driving force of her campaign: the labor movement — more precisely, the women- and immigrant-led labor movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries. She continued this narrative arc in September in New York City’s Washington Square Park, chosen for its proximity to the 1911 Triangle shirtwaist factory fire, and finished on Thursday night before a crowd of roughly 2,000 at Clark Atlanta University.
“I’ve learned that no matter what fight you’re in today, no matter how steep the climb feels, there are fighters who were here before you. Fighters we can learn from,” she said, summoning the history of the 1881 washerwomen strike in Atlanta. Like much of the history of black resistance outside the 1960s, this moment has mostly been obscured by popular history, which favors narratives focused on black victims and white heroes.
“I’ve learned that no matter what fight you’re in today, no matter how steep the climb feels, there are fighters who were here before you. Fighters we can learn from.”
Instead, the speeches tell a different history, and situate her campaign in 150 years of conflict between the working class and the dominant power structure, inextricably tied up with issues of race and gender exploitation. The stories serve as guideposts for the Massachusetts senator’s approach to politics, grounding her in a radical tradition of multiracial union organizing that pressures, and gives ammunition to, allies working from inside the political system. Warren is not a subtle storyteller.
This heritage is not one that would obviously be associated with a crusading Harvard bankruptcy professor and author who is famously enthralled with capital markets — and it’s probably not always legible, even to her supporters. But linking with women-led labor struggles is a way of addressing a question that has vexed her politics from the beginning of her rise, as the patriarchal forces of American discourse worked to push her, as a rising female political figure, away from fighting for economic justice and into a “women’s issues” box. While she has consistently sided with women’s rights groups, she has just as consistently refused to be a leading voice in the area.
Her one nod to that energy came about accidentally, when, on the Senate floor in early 2017, she was reading off a litany of Sen. Jeff Sessions’s racist transgressions over the years, arguing in opposition to his confirmation as attorney general. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell warned her against such criticism of a fellow senator, but Warren went ahead with her speech. “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted,” McConnell declared when he moved to silence her — delivering to her a feminist slogan she’s happily adopted since.
By identifying her heroes as women who persisted in the face of powerful opposition — Frances Perkins, Clara Lemlich, and the women of Lawrence and Atlanta — she is able to root herself in the fight for women’s liberation without taking her focus off of the battle between the haves and the have-nots. It’s a timely pivot, as women, beginning with the 5-million-strong Women’s March the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, flowing through into the #MeToo movement, and accelerating into the 2018 midterms, have fueled the Democratic resurgence and realignment, and are seen as the key to winning the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. In an era where identity politics is routinely used to divorce progressive efforts from class conflict, Warren is going the opposite direction, arguing that gender identity, race, immigration status, and class consciousness are inseparable.
After the Atlanta event, in between her shots with hours of selfie-seekers, she paused for a brief interview. I told Warren that I suspected the three speeches were her way to square the class and gender circles, while still responding to the pressure to be a woman running on women’s issues.
“I know exactly where you’re going with that. This is about the power of women,” she said. “All three of those speeches. The Lawrence speech is about how a lot of women got together and said, ‘Enough, we are going to make change.’ The speech in New York, which was about the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire, was not only about the women who burned to death, the women who led the protest movement, but also the woman, Frances Perkins, who was the one who fought it from the inside and made real change. And here, today, to be able to celebrate black women and how much black women have contributed to organizing to power and to making real change.”
Warren is not just glomming onto a movement, but hoping to reorient it from a broad force of resistance to Trump into a fighting force for economic justice. “Our history is a piece of the message of how to go forward,” she told me. Indeed, she’s betting her campaign on it, while her chief rival for the votes of white, college-educated women, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, is betting just the opposite. “We will fight when we must fight, but I will never allow us to get so wrapped up in the fighting that we start to think fighting is the point,” Buttigieg said in October at the fourth Democratic presidential primary debate, taking his fight to Warren shortly before he began his climb in the polls.
The Civil War ended in 1865 and, within a year, free black women were on strike. At the time, one of the leading occupations for newly freed women involved laundry. Cotton had filled people’s closets with clothes, those clothes got dirty quickly, and the main way in the South to clean them was by hand: work done predominantly by black women’s hands. In 1881, in the fast-growing city of Atlanta, the capital of the so-called New South, 20 black women came together to organize the Washing Society. “Their first order? Strike,” said Warren. ”Their demands? Higher wages and to be treated with a little dignity.”
“The washerwomen had a plan,” she added, deploying her trademark line in a way that appeared to respond to criticism from the left that trumpeting plans signals a top-down technocratic lack of interest in producing change from the bottom-up. Warren’s rejoinder, that the washerwomen had a plan, argues that having a plan and building a movement can — indeed, must — go hand in hand.
Not more than a few minutes into Warren’s speech, just as she was getting to the story of the city’s washerwomen, a protest erupted from a back corner of the auditorium. Roughly 100 demonstrators began chanting pro-charter school slogans. (Warren wants to end for-profit charter schools and rein in nonprofit charters.) Warren initially tried to plow through, but then paused as the chanting continued, likely considering the optics of shutting down a protest by mostly black women in order to give a speech about the power of black women’s protest. As they showed no signs of slowing down, Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., the lone member of the so-called Squad to endorse Warren, came to the mic to try to regain control of the situation. Security guards ushered the group’s leader, Sarah Carpenter, into the hallway, quieting the scene.
Carpenter told reporters in the hallway the group had come together organically over the past few weeks, in the wake of Warren’s education plan. But the group, calling themselves the Powerful Parent Network, has a handful of billionaire patrons. Carpenter is the founder of a pro-charter group in Memphis that is wholly funded by the Walton Family Foundation (Walton as in Walmart), which invests in and makes loans to charter schools. PPN is also backed by the California Charter Association, which is significantly funded by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, a major donor to Buttigieg.
Back inside, Warren returned to her narrative, describing how the washerwomen began to form a multiracial coalition. White city leaders brought the law down on strikers, but were unable to break it, eventually conceding to higher pay and a more dignified work environment.
By identifying her heroes, Warren is able to root herself in the fight for women’s liberation without taking her focus off of the battle between the haves and the have-nots.
“Black women led, but soon, the handful of white washerwomen who’d stood on the sidelines realized that the only way to better wages was to follow the lead of the black women,” she said. “Working women standing together.”
After the rally, Warren met with the protesters, but told me she didn’t know they were funded by the Waltons. (“We had a good conversation, but, you know, mostly I just wanted to be able to talk to everybody here, and we got a chance to do that,” she said.)
Thirty years after the washerwomen victory, in the wake of a citywide general strike led in 1909 by 23-year-old immigrant Clara Lemlich, garment workers had secured recognition and improved wages and safety conditions in New York. The unionization effort was organized by the radical Industrial Workers of the World, known as the Wobblies and led by women and girls in Manhattan’s sprawling garment industry, most of them immigrants.
But the Triangle Waist Company’s factory near Washington Square Park in New York City remained an anti-union stronghold. Legislators in Albany, along with local city leaders, had remained resistant to the union movement, rebuffing efforts to use legislation and regulation to extend the protections won for some workers in the strikes. It was a reflection of the limitations faced by even the most successful strikes, when they are not complemented by political gains at the state level. This is a truism in labor movement politics, though it’s often overlooked by organizers uninterested in electoral or legislative politics; as the saying goes, you may not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you. Two years later, in 1911, the non-union Triangle factory, still employing barbaric and wildly unsafe practices, burst into flames, trapping and killing 146 people in a gruesome fashion.
The next year, garment workers in Lawrence, again organized by the Wobblies, went on strike after a unilateral pay cut, demanding both better wages (“bread”) and dignity (“roses”). Street battles pitted young girls and women against company-run militias, including even students from — ironically for Warren — Harvard, who eagerly armed themselves to do their duty and put down the worker uprising. The school’s dean allowed the students to retake missed final exams for the good of the class cause.
The women of Lawrence won the Bread and Roses strike. “Those workers did more than improve their own lives. They changed America. Within weeks, more than a quarter of a million textile workers throughout New England got raises. Within months, Massachusetts became the first state in the nation to pass a minimum wage law. And today, there are no children working in factories. We have a national minimum wage. And worker safety laws. Workers get paid overtime and we have a 40-hour work week,” Warren said in Lawrence during her campaign launch.
“The story of Lawrence is a story about how real change happens in America. It’s a story about power — our power — when we fight together.” In Washington Square Park, she reiterated this theme of worker power: “The tragic story of the Triangle factory fire is a story about power.”
In Atlanta, the theme emerged once more, this time focused on the way race is deployed by the powerful to divide workers who otherwise would find solidarity in their fights against bosses.
“Divide and conquer is an old political tactic — and it comes in all sorts of ugly flavors: racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic,” Warren said. “The rich and powerful want us to be afraid of each other. Why? Because they’re afraid of us. Afraid of our numbers. Afraid of seeing us stand together. Afraid that we will take up each other’s fights as our own. Afraid that they will lose their power.”
All three, indeed, are stories about power — not only because they are landmark achievements, but because they also demonstrate the power that the left is up against. Within two years of the Bread and Roses strike, once national attention had faded, the Lawrence unions were effectively smashed, returning power to the bosses, and minimum wage laws and other job protections, absent worker power to enforce them, were widely ignored. In New York, the legislative victories that came in the wake of the fire would be more enduring, but capital would fight back over the following decades by fleeing New York for cheaper nonunion labor elsewhere in the country. Once those workers were organized, production fled overseas. That offshoring was abetted by politicians bought off by the bosses, and Warren wants to link that corruption within the system to the exploitation outside of it. She’s selling herself as someone who can both galvanize a movement for change, then use the power that movement built to restructure the system in an enduring way.
One of the women who witnessed the fire also became central to the success of legislative advances first in New York, and then through the New Deal — and is the most explicit model for Warren. That woman, Frances Perkins, took center stage in Washington Square Park — literally: The podium on the stage was constructed from barn boards the Warren campaign got from the Perkins family. A 30-year-old Perkins had been a witness to the shirtwaist factory fire. which Warren described in all its gory detail:
The flames leapt higher, and women climbed out onto the ledges.
And as people on the ground stood in shocked silence, a woman jumped. Then another, then another. They hit the ground with a sickening thud. They died on impact. So many, so fast that the women’s bodies piled up on the sidewalk. Their blood ran into the gutters.
Dozens more were trapped inside. Trapped because the door to the staircase was locked — locked by bosses afraid the workers might steal scraps of cloth. Firefighters would later find a pile of burned bodies next to that very door.
It took 18 minutes for 146 people to die. Mostly women. Mostly immigrants — Jewish and Italian. Mostly people who made as little as $5 a week to get their shot at the American dream.
In the wake of the fire, the movement Lemlich had led exploded in size. “A week later, the women’s trade unions organized a funeral march, and half a million people showed up to march down Fifth Avenue, right behind me. Half a million people in 1911.”
The element of the story that Warren tells next is critical to understanding her view of social and political change: “While the women of the trade unions kept pushing from the outside, Frances pushed from the inside.”
On the one hand, Warren’s nod to the successes of the movement — a minimum wage, improved safety, shorter hours and a weekend — are part of the labor canon. At the same time, there are elements of the left that are skeptical of insider tacticians, believing that true power lies with organizing broad-based movements, and that insiders, concerned about their own careers and interests, fundamentally compromise a movement’s integrity.
“We’re going to need all of that pressure, all of that energy, to hold Congress accountable, to hold our state governments accountable, to hold this country accountable.”
Her opponent on the left, Sen. Bernie Sanders, is not an explicit advocate of that view; after all, he’s been inside Congress since 1990, and is running to be president. But, with a campaign mantra of “Not me, us,” and a promise to be the “organizer-in-chief,” he leans in that direction. Warren, meanwhile, focuses on ending lobbying as we know it, confronting corruption, and rewriting the rules of the legislative and administrative rule-making process. Where Sanders wants to out-organize the system, Warren wants to reorganize it.
Their different approaches to labor reform are instructive on that front: Sanders emphasizes his plan to empower workers on the shop floor and make it easier to join a union. Warren’s emphasis tends to be on her plan to put workers directly on corporate boards, empowering them inside the highest echelons of the system. (Sanders has since done one better, coupling it with significant employee ownership of firms.)
Crucially, though, both Sanders and Warren argue that their agendas can’t be accomplished without sustained outside pressure. Sanders calls it a political revolution, and is working to build a movement to see it through. Warren, with her nods to labor movement history, is making the case that she, too, understands the necessity of people power to drive change. I asked her if she agreed with Sanders that President Barack Obama had made a mistake by demobilizing his grassroots army in the wake of his election.
“I’ve already been telling people, I’m building a grassroots movement that’s going to be our comparative advantage in November of 2020, but then when we win, nobody gets to go home,” she said, “because it’s really about making change starting in January 2021, and we’re going to need all of that pressure, all of that energy, to hold Congress accountable, to hold our state governments accountable, to hold this country accountable, to make the kind of change we need to make. We got a lot of fights to fight and we need to pick up each other’s fights as our own, whether it’s on climate or gun violence or health care, or a two-cent wealth tax so that we can invest in an entire generation. We embrace each other’s fights. That’s how we’re going to make real change.”
Indeed, one of the crippling handicaps of the Obama administration was that it did not have a Frances Perkins fighting from the inside, leaving operatives like Rahm Emanuel to play on Obama’s worst instincts. Perkins moved with Franklin D. Roosevelt from New York state politics to the federal level when he named her his secretary of labor, where she was a driving force. “Frances Perkins became the first woman in history to serve in the cabinet,” Warren noted at Washington Square Park, quickly moving from the breaking of that ceiling to what she did with the power once she had it. “She used the same model that she and her friends had used after the Triangle fire. She worked the political system relentlessly from the inside, while a sustained movement applied pressure from the outside. As Francis Perkins put it, the Triangle Fire was the day the New Deal was born.”
Warren, went the strong implication, is today’s Perkins, ready to lead from the inside, with the backing of millions on the outside. She referred to Perkins as “one very persistent woman” — a call back to her famous run-in with Mitch McConnell — and credited her with producing “big, structural change,” her campaign’s wonky mantra since day one:
So, what did one woman — one very persistent woman — backed up by millions of people across this country get done? Social Security. Unemployment insurance. Abolition of child labor. Minimum wage. The right to join a union. Even the very existence of the weekend. Big, structural change. One woman, and millions of people to back her up.
In New York, before Warren even appeared onstage, Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the Working Families Party, promised that, with its endorsement earlier that day, WFP intended to add the kind of movement-building to her campaign that Warren has not, previously, been associated with.
“[Radical social movements] arise when institutions aren’t responsive” to the needs of society, Mitchell said.
Warren, in Atlanta, finished with one last linkage — or intersection, so to speak — between racial, gender, and class struggles. Dorothy Bolden, she noted, was born in 1924, within living memory of the washerwomen strike. By the time she was nine, she had joined the trade herself. After having six kids of her own, she became active in the civil rights movement, encouraged along by one of her neighbors: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Dr. King encouraged Dorothy to continue this fight, so she mapped out a plan,” Warren said.
That plan was to follow the Washing Society with a new union, called the National Domestic Workers of America. It was, said Warren, “the first union with real power for domestic workers in American history,” noting that it evolved into the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which remains a force.
“From the boldness of Atlanta’s washerwomen to the courage of Dorothy Bolden, black history teaches us that the only way to win is to get in the fight,” Warren concluded. “Dorothy Bolden showed that one very determined woman — backed up by many people across this country — can deliver big structural change.”
Ryan Grim is the author of the new book We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement.