One of the toughest jobs in 19th century America was that of a laundress. Although machines were used in the commercial laundry process, this was still dangerous, backbreaking labor performed almost entirely by women in sweatshop conditions.
The laundry industry has strong roots in Troy, which was known as “the collar city” because the detachable collar for men’s shirts was invented there. By the mid-1860s, Troy had more than a dozen commercial laundries to meet the demand for freshly washed, starched and ironed collars and cuffs. Troy was also home to Kate Mullany, a young Irish immigrant who worked in a collar laundry, where women toiled as many as 14 hours a day washing, bleaching, scrubbing, and ironing. She watched as many of her co-workers were badly burned by the irons and scalded by boiling water. Spurred by members of the Iron Molders’ Union, Kate unionized her colleagues, and led them on a successful strike for higher wages.
Today, we remember Kate Mullany as a labor leader and a woman of great courage. That’s because it was extremely dangerous to form a union. In April 1914, an attack on a camp of striking Colorado coal miners left about two dozen dead in what’s known as the Ludlow Massacre.
Since 1850, more than 1,200 people have given their lives for the labor movement. Many were gunned down at rallies, beaten by hired company thugs, or falsely arrested and executed. That terrible history is the debt modern unions owe to their founders, who sacrificed so much to end child labor, achieve a decent wage, and make factories safer.
Tragedy and hardship has forged the labor movement and made it stronger. The International Ladies Garment Workers Union formed because of the horrific 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City. The textile workers in Lawrence, Mass., who carried the 1912 “Bread and Roses” strike for more than two months, endured brutal oppression and the death of a striker, but they also won significant improvements in pay and working conditions.
I come from a union family. In fact, my widowed mother is able to stay in her home because of my father’s pension, earned through the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Now, I have the privilege of leading United University Professions, which represents faculty and staff at the state-operated SUNY campuses and hospitals.
Today, labor faces a very different kind of fight, against well-funded anti-union groups that challenge the very right of unions to exist. And too often, these efforts have found sympathetic audiences in nonunionized workers who resent the negotiated protections and benefits of unionized employees. Far too many Americans fail to understand that a strong labor movement equals a strong, productive workforce. The middle class is strongest when unions are strong.
Union workers earn higher wages and often have better benefits than nonunion workers. Unions provide a mighty voice for workers on the job, they reduce wage gaps for women and people of color, and provide retirement security.
Is the labor movement perfect? No, it is not. But when people earn higher pay and better benefits, they contribute more to the economy and the productivity of their companies.
Many unionists supported the campaign of Donald Trump, yet the Trump administration continues to disparage unions. The latest example: the recent Department of Justice brief filed in the upcoming U.S. Supreme Court case of Janus versus the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31—a suit that seeks to destroy unions and all they stand for.
Attacks on unions are un-American. We have the right to organize and to bargain collectively. A world without unions means the eradication of the middle class and a return to the sweatshop culture of the 1800s – an exploitive, inhumane culture that still exists around the world. This is the culture that Kate Mullany fought against, and others died trying to change.
I close with a welcoming message of hope and determination inspired by the early heroes of the American labor movement. That message is this: Unions are at their strongest and best when times are toughest.
We have seen far worse than the challenges we face today, and we have survived—and thrived. The unions in this great country are here to stay. We will never quit. We will fight. And we will never surrender.
Dr. Fred Kowal is President of the 35,000 member United University Professions, which represents faculty on 29 New York State Campuses. UUP is an affiliate of NYSUT, The American Federation of Teachers, The National Education Association and the AFL-CIO.
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