The Seattle Empire Laundry building is associated with three specific events in labor history. These events created changes in the lot of a unique female population: the women who labored in Seattle’s power laundries.

The struggles of these "laundry girls" were unique in Seattle history. The women's determination to do better also enabled their colleagues, the laundry wagon drivers, shape the West Coast future of the Teamsters union.

    Background of the struggle to unionize
This connection came about through one individual. For these three events mark — in 1917, the middle 1920’s, and 1932 — the inception and flowering of Dave Beck’s lifelong involvement with union organization. The laundries' strife enabled Beck to hone both his philosophies on labor and his strategies.

Seattle’s women laundry workers had entered the Knights of Labor in 1890. But their local subsequently dissolved during the depression of 1893. There were consistent efforts afterwards to organize the workers - technically, a type of union union still existed for laundry workers. But efforts to recruit were met with unwavering opposition. As Seattle historian Karen Adair has written, the laundry owners' "blacklisting practices suppressed all worker initiative."

Thus, from 1900 to 1917, it was almost impossible for laundry workers (almost all of whom were women) to organize by any means at all. The merest suspicion of union involvement led directly to loss of work. Even visitors to the Labor Temple union hall were tracked, reported and summarily fired.

By the time of D.C. Keeney’s expansion into 2301 Western Ave., the laundry workers’ union had "a very small percentage of the laundry workers of the city as members. To join … meant discharge. No laundry owners of importance in the city allowed members of the laundry workers union to work in their plants."

The self-nominated "laundrymen" of Seattle operated as a single, monolithic cartel - what the Washington State Federation of Labor called "a powerful organization of laundry owners."

Under their eye, "discharged employees were blacklisted and employment in other laundries could not be secured. Laundry drivers who for any reason severed their relations with an employer could not again drive a laundry wagon in Seattle for one year."

There was a solid reason for the owner's intransigence - the laundry business had entered a boom that would last for the first quarter of the new century. By 1912, laundry was Seattle's sixth-largest industry, employing only 300 fewer workers than the fourth and fifth-largest, which were breweries and coal.

The laundry owners defended their growing profits aggressively and David Keeney ran Seattle Empire Laundry ruthlessly. The same year his new plant was constructed, it was denounced in the Seattle Union Record by a union delegate, Hilda O’Connor.

In April of 1914, Keeney was chosen by other owners as one of three chiefs intended to serve at a Minimum Wage Conference for Laundries. This committee had three laundry workers and three members of the public in its makeup.

Then Keeney's son Seth was involved in an auto homicide, and the death of a very well-known doctor. This scandal in Keeney's private life broke just before the Conference - and it immediately ruled out his attendance.

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