Kate Mullany: An Activist and Leader in the 19th Century Labor and Women’s Movements
Kate Mullany and the Collar Laundry Union in Troy
One Woman’s Goal to Improve Working Conditions for Women
Imagine working in a hot, humid factory for 12 to 14 hours a day, sweating and laboring with hardly any opportunity for a break. Sticking your hands in bleach, soap and boiling water and burning yourself on scalding hot irons. Trying hard to execute every intricate detail of the manufacturing process you are a part of, every minute fearing that you will make a mistake. Knowing that an error will result in docked pay, even though your compensation is minimal, only about three to four dollars a week.
This was the reality for the thousands of women employed by the 14 commercial laundries in Troy, NY during the mid 1800s. Collar manufacturing, shirt making and textile production were major industries in the area, earning Troy the nickname Collar City. Though many women considered themselves lucky to be employed as a laundress, their working for very long hours in hot, sticky, unsafe conditions for low pay inspired the term ‘sweatshop.’
Fortunately, the awful working conditions also inspired something else—the foundation of the Collar Laundry Union in 1864. Organized by Kate Mullany, a young Irish immigrant who worked as a laundress to provide for her family, the union was the first all-female labor union in the United States and one of the first women’s unions to remain functional after the issue that originally united them had been resolved.
At just 19 years old, Mullany was the breadwinner in her family. With her father dead and her mother ailing, she had no choice but to earn money to support her family while her older sister cared for their younger siblings and their mother. She felt lucky to have a job—competition for employment in the commercial laundries was intense—but was unhappy with the wages she was earning and the working conditions she was forced to accept, and knew many of the women she worked with felt the same way. With the knowledge that male workers in other industries had successfully unionized to ensure that their needs were heard, acknowledged and ultimately met, Mullany was determined to organize a union of female workers to voice their concerns and start instigating change in the laundry industry.
Together with a couple of her coworkers, Mullany organized about 300 women into a union and soon after organized a strike to protest the unsafe working conditions and unfair wages. Women from the 14 laundry establishments in Troy met to discuss their demands, deciding to advocate for safer working conditions and insist on a 20 to 25 percent increase in their wages. At first, the superiors at the laundries refused to satisfy the workers’ demands. For five days, the strike persisted, until a few of the establishments gave in and agreed to improve working conditions and pay the women more. The other laundries soon followed suit, making the strike a success.
Mullany and the other women in the union continued to advocate for themselves, and to contribute to campaigns undertaken by unions in other industries, establishing themselves as the Collar Laundry Union of Troy and solidifying their prominent and influential position in Troy’s labor movement. Mullany continued making connections within the labor movement and went on to participate at the national level. In 1868, she attended the National Labor Congress meeting in New York City, where she met other female labor delegates, including Susan B. Anthony. At this conference, Mullany was among the nominees to become the Vice President of the National Labor Congress. She was ultimately appointed the assistant secretary.
Mullany continued to work as an advocate for workers even after the Collar Laundry Union dissolved in 1870, remaining a part of a network of women labor activists, joining the Starchers Union and showing support for establishing cooperatives. She died on August 17, 1906, leaving a legacy behind her having contributed substantially to the labor and women’s rights movements.
Mullany’s hard work enabled her to ultimately move her family to a much nicer house than the one they lived in initially following their immigration, something she was very proud of. This house, a brick, three-story building at 350 8th Street in Troy, is the only existing building associated with Mullany. It was designated as a National Historic Landmark and named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1998. It was named as a National Historic Site in 2004, and was added to the New York State Women’s Heritage Trail in 2006. Currently, it is the home of the American Labor Studies Center.
–Jessica Venezia is a Contributor to The Free George. Photo Courtesy of Daniel Case.
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