There were two Laundry Minimum Wage Conferences in 1914. Throughout both, girls testified they required $10-$12 per week to live. Owners insisted they could pay no more than $8. In a 1910 laundry girls' wage dispute in Everett, it had taken only a six-day strike to win higher wages, due to public sympathy. Even then, though customers were paying 25% to 30% more for their work, the laundry's "girls" won only a 10% increase.

In June 1914, the state's legal wage was finally set at $9.00 per week. Yet, in Seattle, laundrymen evaded paying it.

    The Seattle Empire's boss battles against unions

Some worked at finding ingenious ways around the law (two Seattle laundries simply traded staff at the end of a ‘working day,’ extending the paid-for eight hour day to 12 hours). Others opposed the very idea a laundry wage should be enough for women to support themselves. Unanimously, the "laundrymen" opposed worker organization.

Seattle Empire's D. C. Keeney was among the most outspoken. Keeney had become highly-placed in the Seattle industry - the very month he opened the new Seattle-Empire, he became one of only eleven locals involved in the Laundrymen's National Association of America. (This fact was trumpeted in the March 30, 1914 issue of the regional journal Pacific Laundryman).

Yet the Seattle Union Record developed a less glowing view. By August 19, 1916, the paper was rebuking Keeney for his views about his own workers. In an article headlined "WOULD ABOLISH ALL LABOR LAWS" and subtitled "Manager of Seattle Empire Laundry Tells Laundry Workers Slaves Should Leave All to Masters". Its text read as follows:

"A committee of laundry workers called on Mr. D. C. Keeney, manager of the Seattle Empire Laundry, this week for the purpose of ascertaining his views on organized labor generally and the laundry workers in particular. Mr. Keeney seemed to have no objection to his drivers becoming members of the union, but when the matter of his inside employees joining was broached he became very sick at heart and proceeded to tell all the vile features of the union movement.

"Mr. Keeney said he would not object to employees joining the union, but they must not talk unionism in the plant, on the street or at home. In fact, they would not be allowed to dream about it … Mr. Keeney’s enthusiasm waxed warm upon the question of employers organizing, and favored one big pool embracing all the laundries in Seattle. In other words, he believes in a closed shop to this extent.

"The ‘particular brand’ Mr. Keeney uses seems to have inspired him to lofty ideals. He proposed that if there were no class legislation and no labor unions, the bosses controlled the workers, nobody would be underpaid or overworked. One will note that Mr. Keeney is a profound student of the economic question.

"In passing it is worthy of remark that the Seattle Empire Laundry has a reputation all its own for low wage scale."

The girls at Seattle Empire Laundry were earning $6.65 – not $9.00, as now legally required – for their labor.

From 1915 on, positions like that held by Keeney served to fueled a looming battle. It would in fact continue on into the 1930’s, making both organizer reputations and union history. One of its principal players would be David D. Beck, the avenging son of an inside laundry worker. As an inside washroom wringer at Seattle's Central Wet Wash, Beck had learned firsthand what his mother endured. He joined Local 24 - the laundry workers' union.

Local 24 then represented all laundry and dye workers, as well as laundry and dye wagon drivers. When Beck joined in late 1914, interest in organizing the laundries was actively reviving - after 14 long years of foiled and failed attempts. In pursuit of such a goal, the national organization's President made a special trip to Seattle. However, the laundry owners’ power was overwhelming. Only one laundry (The IXL) ever dared to sign with a union.

In February of 1914, the Seattle Central Labor Council tried to help, with concrete plans for a cooperative: a "union" laundry, where both conditions and pay would be fair. The laundry owners fought this project tooth and nail, delaying its opening until late 1915.

But the "Mutual Laundry" did finally open. When local owners forced their machinery importers into a boycott, labor leaders secured equipment out-of-state. They had to do the same for supplies, sometimes resorting to fake names and even bribery. Once it was operative, however, they used the Mutual effectively - as an unfailing source of good publicity.

On September 9, 1916, Seattle’s Central Labor Council placed Keeney’s Seattle Empire Laundry on a seven-laundry list of "unfair" employers - cited for "abuse" of their women workers. They also claimed the listed laundries had together "successfully blocked any and all attempts to organize the laundry girls of Seattle."

The Union Record Council noted a difference between the lot of the laundry drivers and the laundry girls - saying "most of these laundries do allow some drivers to belong [to a union] … But that is a matter of good business tactics [for the owners].") But things were soon to change - for the "girls" and the drivers.

on to The laundry girls take action    

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