Laundry Workers Union Local 24
Before Washington became a state in 1889, Chinese men made up the majority of laundry workers in the territory; however, white women increasingly began working in laundries in the late 1800s as Chinese men were targeted by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Women laundry workers were typically single, including single mothers trying to support families. Working conditions in laundries were particularly brutal. Employees faced long shifts in hot rooms with poor ventilation and were exposed to harsh chemicals and the risk of major injury from heavy duty machinery.
Laundry owners fought against the passage of eight-hour workday legislation in 1911 and frequently fired any woman who attempted to unionize. Wages for laundry workers were also notoriously bad. Even after passage of legislation mandating a $10 per week minimum wage for women in 1913, many laundry owners continued to pay employees below this amount. Only the cooperatively owned Mutual Laundry which opened in Seattle in 1915 employed union labor and paid their workers minimum wage.
In response to laundry workers fired for unionization, 900 women walked off the job in 1917, joined by male laundry drivers. Membership of Local 24 suddenly rose to 600 after only a week of striking. Even with strikebreakers, laundry owners could not keep their businesses afloat, and eventually agreed to negotiate with the union. Women laundry workers as well as male engineers and laundry drivers won a major wage increase and an eight-hour workday. In 1919, laundry workers assisted in the general strike effort. The General Strike Committee granted them permission to handle hospital laundry during the six days of the strike when they requested an exemption to perform this vital public service.
Click images below to view at full resolution and for more information.