Labor Pains: Formation of the Women’s Protective Union

The story of the Women's Protective Union (WPU) captures the essence of the Mining City’s spirit. While the unionization of Butte’s underground miners is well-known, the story of its women workers, while often overlooked, is just as remarkable.

The mines operated around the clock, as did the women who cooked and cleaned for the miners. Women, often miners’ widows and older daughters forced to leave school to help support their extended family, worked in Butte restaurants, boarding houses, and hotels as cooks, chamber maids, and waitresses. Founded in 1890, the WPU sought to secure rights for these women, who struggled for respectability and decent treatment.

Setting aside union tradition, the WPU had no occupation-based restrictions regarding who could belong to the union. The requisite for this union was simple --- be female and work outside the home.

As in the rest of America, Butte women were denied the right to vote. So they turned to their union where they, in solidarity, found a collective voice.

The women the union represented worked at what some might consider menial jobs, but their approach to labor organizing aligned with one of the most radical labor organizations in the country, the Industrial Workers of the World. The WPU concurred with the IWW's approach to trade unionism as a vehicle for social justice.

The WPU not only helped its members on the job, but also provided housing options, as well as childcare and health care. By 1904, the WPU had purchased its own building in the center of town on Broadway, where members could go for a whole host of services, including English lessons for immigrant women and help in preparing for citizenship tests.

The union's accomplishments were nothing short of extraordinary. Even without the ballot to influence elections or legislation, the WPU led the fight for a 10-hour day, achieving it before other cities in the West. Women's wages in Butte exceeded those in Seattle and San Francisco.

In 1949, the WPU called the one and only strike in its history. With picket lines honored by all the other unions in Butte, retailers and restaurateurs folded after seven weeks. All the WPU's contract demands were met.

From a founding group of 33 women, the WPU grew to its peak of 1,149 members in 1955.

A great irony of the civil rights era came in 1973 when the Women's Protective Union, a well-organized, highly successful, and deeply committed organization for the advancement of women workers, was forced to merge with the all-male Cooks and Waiters Union. The two chapters formed the Culinary and Miscellaneous Workers Union Local 457, and the Women’s Protective Union passed into history.

Valentine Kenney Webster literally grew up in the Women's Protective Union. At age four, she accompanied her mother and other WPU members to the funeral of Frank Little, the union organizer who was infamously lynched during the Butte miners strike in 1917.
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Bridget Shea served as president and walking delegate of the Women’s Protective Union for 25 years. She was both feared and revered. Shea died in 1955 at the age of 79. (photo – Verdigris Project)
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Blanche Copenhaver was involved in the Women's Protective Union in one role or another for 40 years. As a union member and working waitress, she moved up the ranks of the WPU to become one of its key leaders in the 1950s.
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Mildred “Millie” Laitinen worked in restaurants and banquet halls in Butte as a member of the Women’s Protective Union and its successor, the Hotel and Restaurant Union, for 50 years.
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