Margaret Sanger, "The Women of the Laundry Workers' Strike," 14 Jan. 1912.
Published article. Source: New York Call, Jan. 14, 1912 .
There has seldom been so much joy in the ranks of labor as was expressed when the Laundry Workers went out on strike.
When person after person had said, at hearing the news, "Well, I am glad," it was natural to inquire why one was glad, and the reply came from all sides that they are the hardest worked, most poorly paid, and have the longest and most irregular hours of all union workers, and they were glad because at last they have realized this condition and had the spirit and courage to rebel against it. For spirit and courage they have, and need, too, at such a time, with grinding poverty at their doorstep. The landlord's knock, too, resounds throughout their ranks and threatens many of them, but courage is there and is expressed in every face and voice.
One woman, a shirtwaist ironer, said her boss had come to her and said: "Mary, what have you got to kick about? You get $8 a week; you have your own hours, you can do just about what you like; tell me what it's all about." And with the true spirit of solidarity, she replied: "yes, sir, that's all true enough. I'm gettin' good wages, and I'm treated good, but I'm only ONE, sir. What I'm kickin' about is, I want the others in the laundry to get as good as I get."
That is the spirit of the strong ones in the strike. They are not fighting for themselves, but for the hundreds of others who are treated like slaves.
One man, a shirt ironer, said he had a family of five; he had to get up at 5 a.m. The children were asleep when he went away; he took ten minutes for his lunch, usually less time for his supper; dragged himself home at 11 o'clock at night to find the children asleep again, and so on until Sunday, when he in turn to gain strength for the working week to come, had to sleep most of that day. Everywhere is the same cry. No time for their family, and starvation wages thrown in.
One of the most interesting features in this strike is the prominent part the women are playing in this great tragic drama.
In the first place, IT WAS THE WOMEN WHO URGED THE STRIKE. They began complaining months ago, and asking what good the union was to them, what was it giving them. Some of them dropped out; but others remained in and encouraged their brothers to strike.
Dissatisfaction soon spread and the courage to express their dissatisfaction resulted in the strike.
Of course, there were girls who did not come out when the strike was called, but they were mostly girls who had worked a short time in the laundry and knew very little about the other workers there. The older women who had worked long enough to see the miseries of their fellow workers came out strong, and are the first to come forward when pickets are called for.
It takes courage to be a picket. To get up early in the morning, these bitterly cold mornings, too, and try to waylay those girls before they get to the laundry. To get there first and to wait, to wait in the biting cold, or oftimes the slush and rain, is the work these girls do.
There is the police ready for her, waiting to pounce upon her at the first opportunity. The boss points out all the strong ones to the police, and his keen eye is over on them waiting for the chance to get them out of the way, so the boss may heap up his profits unmolested. Should the picket stand for a second, even to shake hands with a friend, the big bully with the club pushes himself between them with his coarse and brutal tone and a "move along there."
After waiting hours the girls arrive, accompanied by either a policeman or a detective, and the picket's long wait was for nothing, but undaunted she is at her post again at night to wait for the girls to come out.
By no means do these girls confine their picketing efforts to the girls alone. No, indeed. They are just as eager to waylay the men. One good, faithful girl, who became so enraged at seeing one of the men she knew driving one of the laundry wagons, that she jumped upon the wagon and brought him down and would have succeeded in pulling him out had not Mr. Blue Coat Bully arrived upon the scene and arrested her and taken her away.
The Laundry Workers Union has treated their women fairly. They pay 40 cents fees, while the men pay 60 cents. They have all rights of the union and vote upon all questions the same as men. The men themselves seem amazed at the spirit of the women, for those who came out came with true colors flying and are there to stay.
A committee of two was sent to see a woman who was the wife of one of the washers in a large steam laundry. This wife, it was rumored, had made her husband go back to work, and the committee was sent to talk to her.
The husband made one attempt to open his mouth, but the Amazon pushed him into a room, clapped the door behind him and calmly resumed her conversation with the committee. After nearly an hour's conversation, convincing her that her husband will be considered a coward and a traitor, besides finding himself on the wrong side of the fight and out of work when the union wins, she finally allowed the culprit to appear.
He proceeded to play the part of the bravado, and began: "Look a here, have I got a kick coming?" The room was small, but clean and cozy; a bright fire burned in a stove and in this one room at least dire poverty was not showing its head.
One of the committee, a laundry worker, stood firmly fixed to the floor (far be it from her to sit in such a man's house), but she replied: "Yes Jake, you are well fixed here. That's why I'm surprised you ain't sticking to us. Ain't you got no feelings for the others who ain't so well fixed?" She kept growing more and more enraged, and finally walked over to him shaking her fist under his nose, and said: "But I want to tell you, Jake Burns, that I'd rather walk the streets with my bare feet in the snow, I'd rather beg from door to door, I'd rather go in rags with my stomach touchin' my back from now till hell freezes, then to live here in all your comfort and be a scab."
Copyright 2003. Margaret Sanger Project