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Exterior of labor activist primary source box.
Exterior of labor activist primary source box. Photograph by Amanda Roberts.

Highlighting Youth Activism in the Labor Movement: Collections and Activities

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This post was written by Amanda Roberts, a Junior Fellow in the Library of Congress’s Informal Learning Office.

As we near the end of summer, your children may be wondering why we celebrate Labor Day, and how it can be relevant to young people. This summer as a Junior Fellow, I researched the way that young people’s participation in labor movements was represented in the Library’s collections. I developed an interactive primary source collection for the Source, an education center that will open at the Library in the next few years. But even before the Source opens, you can still incorporate these three young activists into your Labor Day festivities this year by listening and viewing primary sources about their lives from our collections.

As the photos in the Lewis Hine Child Labor collection suggest, young people were not age-exempt from the grueling world of labor, so it is unsurprising that many young people became fierce advocates for improving conditions in the workplace.

Head and shoulders photograph of Rose Schneiderman, early 1900s.
Rose Schneiderman, Vice-President of the Women’s Trade Union of N.Y.C., Photo circa 1907-1918. Records of the National Woman’s Party, Manuscript Division.

Rose Schneiderman (April 6, 1882-August 11, 1972)

My research first introduced me to Rose Schneiderman. Rose Schneiderman left school to begin working at thirteen years old to support her family. At age 21, Schneiderman organized her first local union chapter, the United Cloth Hat and Cap Makers’ Union. Her work organizing strikes for cap makers caught the attention of the New York Women’s Trade Union League, and by age 24, she was elected Vice President of this organization. In this position, she  played a key role in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union’s Uprising of the 20,000, a strike for shirtwaist makers in New York City. You can find out more about Rose Schneiderman’s life here.

The strike that Schneiderman is most often associated with is the Lawrence Textile Strike of 1912. With your children, use Library of Congress primary sources to explore the origin of the slogan this strike was known by: Bread and Roses.

James Oppenheim wrote the poem “Bread and Roses” in 1911, possibly inspiring a speech that Rose Schneiderman gave during the 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike that incorporated this phrase. In Schneiderman’s speech, she advocates for workers to have bread, symbolizing basic necessities, and roses, representing a better quality of life.

Reading “Bread and Roses” in the December 22, 1911 edition of The Detroit Times provides an opportunity for family reflection and a writing activity.

Reflection questions:

  • What words are repeated in this poem?
  • What aspects of this poem do you think inspired the young activists like Rose Schneiderman?

Family Activity:

Read the poem out loud with your children and ask them the reflection questions. Then, write the first line of a poem about something you’re passionate about!

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn in public speaking posture.
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn full length portrait in public speaking posture, circa 1910s, George Grantham Bain Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (August 7, 1890-September 5, 1964)

Have you heard the phrase “rebel girl”? Each of these young female activists could be seen as rebel girls but only one activist can be seen on the cover of “The Rebel Girl” sheet music.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was a leader of the Industrial Workers of the World. She was a passionate union organizer who was often arrested for her participation in union strikes. In 1915, Flynn was put on trial in Paterson, New Jersey for “inciting to personal violence” when she attempted to speak in front of a crowd in a meeting hall. Read more about the trial and Flynn’s response in The Day Book article from Chronicling America.

Composer Joe Hill wrote the song “The Rebel Girl” in 1915, inspired by Elizabeth Gurley Flynn’s activism. He also wanted her likeness depicted on the cover of the sheet music.

Can you find Elizabeth Gurley Flynn on the cover?

Sheet music cover showing three young people marching with a union banner.
The Rebel Girl sheet music, Big Bill Haywood, composed by Joe Hill, 1915, Women’s Suffrage in Sheet Music, Music Division.

Family Activity:

Explore the sheet music with your children and ask them the reflection questions. Then, write the first verse of a song about someone that inspires you.

Reflection questions:

  • Why do you think this song was created?
  • What can you learn from the lyrics of this song?
Textile workers marching in Washington, D.C., 1933
Eighteen-year-old Marianna Costa and other textile workers march in Washington, D.C., 1933, Working in Paterson Project Collection, American Folklife Center.

Marianna Costa (1915-2004)

Want to hear directly from an activist?

Marianna Costa participated in a strike in Paterson, New Jersey. Paterson is often referred to as the Silk City; it earned its name when it became the largest silk manufacturing center in the United States.

The American Folklife Center created the Working in Paterson collection in 1994 to document the occupational culture of Paterson, NJ. To learn more about this project, visit the Working in Paterson Collection.

Marianna Costa’s oral history gives insight into her experience working and participating in strikes in Paterson. Costa worked in a factory for 10 hours a day. She joined this 1933 strike spontaneously and later rose to leadership in the dyers’ union. Listen to her oral history, which is part of the American Folklife Center’s Working in Paterson Project.

While you celebrate the Labor Day holiday and after, I encourage you to continue exploring the Library’s collections related to labor activism and consider the influence of young people on the labor movement.

Further Resources:

National Child Labor Committee Collection

Working in Paterson: Occupational Heritage in an Urban Setting

Songs of Unionization, Labor strikes, and Child Labor

Labor Day: Topics in Chronicling America

Library of Congress Blog Posts:

Teaching With the Library: Children as Advocates: The Bread and Roses Strike of 1912

Folklife Today: In Celebration of American Labor

Picture This: Child Labor Photos – What Do Children See?

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