Lucy Randolph Mason was an activist in the union movement, the consumer movement and the civil rights movement in the mid-20th century.
Born near Alexandria, Virginia in 1882, Mason vowed as a child to continue her family's long tradition of community service and commitment to human rights. Her father and grandfather were Episcopal ministers. She was also a fifth-generation descendant of George Mason, author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights which served as the model for the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution.
Mason sought to bring about more humane conditions for working people, ending racial injustice and ensuring that union organizers throughout the South were guaranteed the constitutional rights to free speech, assembly and due process that George Mason had helped establish.
She began her social reform work in Richmond, Virginia, where she had spent her childhood. While in her 20s, she supported herself by working as a stenographer but devoted much of her free time to volunteer social service work and political activities on behalf of women's suffrage. In 1914, the Richmond YWCA offered her a job as its industrial secretary, a post she held until 1918, when she stepped down to care for her invalid father. In 1923, Mason resumed her post at the Richmond YWCA, working there until 1932.
During this period, Mason stimulated YWCA involvement with economic advancement in the African American community, and she generated public support for state labor laws that would ensure safer workplaces, end child labor, raise minimum wages and shorten work hours. Mason also traveled throughout the South promoting voluntary employer agreements that incorporated fair labor standards. To aid in this effort, she wrote Standards for Workers in Southern Industry (1931), the first pamphlet of its kind. Mason relied on consumer pressure to raise labor standards as well.
She belonged to the Union Label League in Richmond and was a frequent speaker to community and labor groups about the importance of buying union-made products and services. During World War I, American Federation of Labor (AFL) President Samuel Gompers appointed Mason as the Virginia chairwoman of the Women in Industry Committee, a division of the wartime National Advisory Committee on Labor.
In 1932, Mason succeeded Florence Kelley as the general secretary of the National Consumers League (NCL), the leading national advocate of fair labor standards. From the 1900s to the 1930s, the NCL worked to pass protective labor laws and to convince consumers to buy only goods and services produced by workers who enjoyed a living wage and decent working conditions. Under Mason, the NCL won the passage of new state labor laws, lobbied for improved labor codes in the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act and helped ensure the passage of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).
During congressional hearings on the FLSA, Mason met Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) President John L. Lewis, who helped arrange a job for her as the CIO's public relations representative for the South. In July 1937, at age 55, Mason moved into the Textile Workers Organizing Committee offices in Atlanta, and became the CIO's "roving ambassador" for the next 16 years.
For Mason, the CIO was "a training ground for citizenship" for Southern workers, a vehicle "to bring democracy to the South" and the means to alleviate the economic and racial injustices experienced by minorities and the poor. Mason traveled alone to small towns where union organizers and their sympathizers had been shot, beaten, threatened and jailed. She cornered hostile sheriffs, judges, newspaper editors, politicians and ministers, explaining workers' rights to organize and bargain under the new federal statutes and promoting an understanding of the need for unions.
She was known by friend and foe as "Miss Lucy." Her social status as a Southern lady and the daughter of an old, respected Virginia family often gained her access to political and community leaders when others were denied. Miss Lucy's success also rested on her blunt speech, her calm yet steely demeanor and her ability to bring civil liberties violations to the attention of federal officials, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Mason convinced Roosevelt to send a special federal investigator to Memphis in 1940, for example, in the wake of physical attacks on the United Rubber Workers' organizers who were trying to create an interracial union.
After 1944, Mason worked with the CIO Political Action Committee in the South, helping to register union members, black and white, and working for the elimination of the poll tax. She also forged lasting links between labor and religious groups. She helped get the Southern Baptist Convention to adopt a resolution in 1938 recognizing "the right of labor to organize and engage in collective bargaining to the end that labor may have a fair and living wage, such as will provide not only the necessities of life, but for recreation, pleasure, and culture."
In the 1940s, she organized interfaith, multi-union and interracial groups in Atlanta and other Southern cities of workers dedicated to building bridges between organized labor and the churches. Eventually, these local groups formed the National Religion and Labor Foundation.
In 1953, due to ill health, Mason retired from active union work. She completed her autobiography, To Win These Rights, in 1952. That same year, she was honored with the Social Justice Award from the National Religion and Labor Foundation. She died in 1959 in Atlanta.