A Look Back

January 23, 2020

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(This article first appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of the American Postal Worker magazine) 

We take a brief look at some key points in labor history that happened during January-February.

Feb. 23, 1864: Kate Mullany leads the all-women Collar Laundry Union’s strike

After her father died, Irish immigrant Kate Mullany was forced to go to work at the Troy, NY laundry at the age of 19. Together with her fellow workers, all female, Mullany worked 12 to 14 hours a day for around $3 per week, handling scalding hot machines and harmful bleaches. If a worker damaged one of the collars, their wages would be reduced. Mullany, her family’s primary breadwinner, organized her fellow laundresses into the country’s first all-female union in early February 1864. Only weeks after organizing the union, Mullany led over two hundred other workers on strike, demanding a 25 percent wage increase.

The laundry operators refused to meet their workers’ demands, and the workers held firm in the snowy, freezing streets of Troy. Five days later, the owners relented.

Mullany’s efforts did not go unrecognized – in 1868, she was appointed as a national secretary of the National Labor Union, making her the first woman to hold a national labor position. She would go on to continue her struggle to better the working lives of women and men, leading further work stoppages and establishing strong connections between workers across trades.

Jan. 17, 1962: President Kennedy signs Executive Order 10988

While private sector workers had gained the right to join unions and collectively bargain under the Wagner Act of 1935, the same protections were not granted to workers in the public sector. However, when President John F. Kennedy signed Executive Order 10988, “Employee-Management Cooperation in the Federal Service,” on Jan. 17, 1962, public workers began gaining more power in the workplace.

The order guaranteed the right of public sector workers to join unions, engage in collective bargaining, and mandated that “that no interference, restraint, coercion or discrimination is practiced within such agency to encourage or discourage membership in any employee organization.”

The Executive Order was an important first step in improving the standing of public sector workers in the United States, but it wasn’t until the Great Postal Strike of 1970 that postal workers truly gained an equal seat at the bargaining table, with the ability to bargain over wages and benefits.

Feb. 7, 1894: The Battle of Cripple Creek, CO begins

After an economic downturn in 1983 caused the price of silver to plummet, a large number of miners attempted to gain employment in the more stable gold mines. In response to the labor surplus, gold mine owners in Colorado colluded to increase the workday from eight to ten hours without a raise in pay.

In response, miners organized in the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) began striking on Feb. 7, 1894, demanding a return to the eight-hour day. Tensions escalated over the next two months, with mine owners hiring strike breakers and paying the county sheriff to form an illegal army of 1,200 deputies. The deputies soon became violent, firing on striking miners gathered on top of Bull Hill, a steep bluff in the Cripple Creek area.

In response, Colorado Governor Davis Waite made an unprecedented decision, sending a militia to Cripple Creek to defend the strikers. The militia broke up and disarmed the illegal army of deputies, and Waite entered negotiations as a “benevolent neutral.” Shortly after, the union won a major victory as the mine owners gave in, returning to an eighthour day with no reduction in wages.

More Dates in Labor History

Jan. 5, 1869

The Colored National Labor Union (CLNU) holds the first convention of black workers in the United States. Members of the union included pioneering trade unionist Isaac Myers and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who was elected president in 1872.

Feb. 16, 1926

Ben Gold, militant leader of the Fur and Leather Workers Union, leads 12,000 furriers, mostly Jewish and Italian women, on strike in New York City. The 17-week strike ended in a 10 percent raise and a 40-hour, five-day work week.

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