“What chance has a girl or woman to live a decent respectable life at the wages of this kind?”- El Paso City and County Labor Advocate, October 31, 1919
In October of 1919, as women across the United States eagerly anticipated the ratification of the 19th Amendment, a group of young women laborers in El Paso, Texas, took their own stand for equality. These women, as documented by scholar Irene Ledesma, marched on picket lines to protest unfair wages and their employers’ refusal to recognize their newly-formed union. Spearheaded by Mexican-American women workers, the 1919 Laundry Strike in El Paso highlighted the ways in which ethnic, racial, and class identities shaped the struggle for women’s rights beyond suffrage in the United States after World War I.
Just in time for Labor Day, this Fall’s launch of the Modernizing America: 1889-1920, the Progressive Era unit of Women and the American Story, will bring the diverse stories of women laborers and activists directly into the classroom. Life stories included in the curriculum include the stories of Emma Goldman and Clara Lemlich. The history of the 1919 Laundry Strike showcases the ways in which contemporary notions of race and gender shaped the complex history of American women’s labor.
Unequal Pay in an Industrial Border City
As a budding industrial city on the Texas–Mexico border, El Paso in 1919 was home to a growing population of workers of Mexican origin, including naturalized immigrants, native-born Americans of Mexican heritage, and laborers who crossed the border daily from Ciudad Juarez. At the time of the Laundry strike, nearly half of the working female population in El Paso was of Mexican origin, and these women comprised between 60-80% of the workers in the region’s industrial laundries.
And yet, while they represented the majority of the laundry labor force, Mexican-American women earned between $4 and $6 a week. These wages were considerably lower than those of their Euro-American counterparts in non-border cities such as Galveston, Dallas, and Houston. White women in those cities earned $14 or more on average in laundry work, according to scholar Mario Garcia.
To justify unequal pay, factory owners wielded racist notions of Mexican laborers as unskilled, lazy, and more adept than white workers at surviving with lower wages. Take, for example, the comments made by a Mr. E. Ravel, the owner of Excelsior Laundry, who claimed that there is a “difference in work,” between ‘American’ and ‘Mexican’ laborers. “The American used just half as much material as the Mexican,” he explained to the El Paso Herald, continuing that “the work was cleaner and whiter and better in every way…”
Working Women’s Solidarity: The Start of the 1919 Laundry Strike
In October of 1919, frustrated by this unequal treatment, women workers from the Acme Laundry Company came together with representatives from the American Federation of Labor (AFL) to organize a local Laundry Workers Union. A majority of Acme’s female workforce joined the union, but the company refused to recognize it. To add insult to injury, the owners also fired two of the leading union organizers. The fact that these two women had climbed the ranks into skilled positions, one as a sorter and the other as a marker, mattered little to the laundry owners who were eager to tamp down union organizing. In a brave demonstration of solidarity, 200 female factory workers walked off the job and called a strike. They demanded that the two women be reinstated and that all Acme workers receive higher wages.
Other local laundries sought to benefit from the strike by taking on work from the Acme factory. They also initially agreed to recognize the union, but quickly rescinded that promise, leading to a rapid escalation of the strike across several laundries. Within days, nearly 600 workers joined the picket lines and mobilized support from allies across the city.
The AFL, along with El Paso’s Central Labor Union (CLU) provided staffing and financial support for the strikers. However, the turn-of-the-century American labor movement had a longstanding history of skepticism, and even hostility towards women workers. Indeed, when the AFL was founded in 1896, women were barred from membership, as many male workers viewed the female labor force as temporary. As a result, male leaders assumed that women were willingto work for lower wages, and thus a threat to union bargaining power. It was only with the establishment of the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) at the 1903 AFL convention that the organization began to embrace women union members within the federation.
Gendered assumptions that devalued women’s labor and organizing, however, ultimately led the male representatives from the AFL and CLU to assume leadership of the Laundry Strike. As historian Irene Ledesma explained, “William Moran, editor of the labor paper and head of the Central Labor Union (CLU), the labor leadership in El Paso … took responsibility for all public statements on the strike and created a fund-raising committee from the CLU membership. A few Mexican women were assigned the task of persuading strikebreakers to refrain from taking the places of union members; all other Mexican women union members were relegated to the union hall.” In addition to Moran, another Mexican-American AFL organizer from Laredo Texas, C.N. Idar — the brother of feminist and labor rights activist Jovita Idar, whose life story also features in “Modernizing America” — led the union negotiations with the laundry owners.
Rights for “American Workers” Only?
Even though they were sidelined from leadership positions, women strikers played a vital role in organizing and raising funds for picketers. They even blocked international bridges to prevent the strikebreakers from coming in from Mexico. However, suspicion of Mexican workers from across the Rio Grande, would ultimately prove to be the undoing of the strike. While the AFL and CLU were eager to support the Mexican-American women laundry workers, they barred Mexican nationals from membership in the union. Mexican nationals comprised a sizeable number of the laundry workers in El Paso. Some resided in the city while, many others made the daily trek (legally) across the Pasa Del Norte Bridge, or Santa Fe Street Bridge to work in the local industries.
On the heels of World War I, anti-immigrant sentiment and opposition to organized labor had become increasingly intertwined. During the war, heightened anxieties about the spread of revolutionary ideals, including those driving the contemporaneous Mexican revolution, weakened the gains made by Progressive Era unionist activists. In response, labor organizers tried to suppress any signs of political radicalism within their ranks. This effort to distance the labor movement from political radicalism meant that the movement also had to distance itself from the immigrant communities that nativists associated with radical ideologies.
Assumptions about migrant laborers compounded the rise of nativism within the labor movement. Many American workers assumed migrants, not factory owners, were the source of pay disparity, because they believed that migrant workers earned even less than women who were American citizens. The El Paso Labor Advocate was eager to suppress any assumptions that the Laundry Strikers were un-American, noting that “true it is, they are nearly all of Mexican origin, but they are by no means all of Mexican citizenship. The large majority are residents of El Paso and citizens of the nation.”
By tying the rights of laundry workers exclusively to the rights of American citizens, the strike leaders ultimately weakened the local union and hindered the success of the strike. The ready availability of a supplemental labor force that was excluded from the Laundry Workers Union rendered the union nearly powerless against the factory owners.
Teaching the 1919 Laundry Strike
Though the 1919 Laundry Strike failed to win recognition for the union and could not secure better wages, it nonetheless galvanized El Paso’s male and female Mexican-American workers. In a battle for equal rights, women strikers at once laid claim to their identities as laborers and as members of a unified Mexican community that straddled the border between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. While the male leadership’s decision to emphasize American citizenship proved ineffective, the rank-and-file solidarity that women laundry workers demonstrated can still inspire and educate students today. By studying women’s labor history beyond the well-known strikes and campaigns of the industrialized Northeast and Midwest, we encounter a more complete portrait of the challenges faced by women workers. When we explore the organizing efforts of the Mexican-descended women of El Paso, we can see how their struggles were shaped by their position in hierarchies of race, ethnicity, and citizenship status, as well as by their gender.
– Tamar Rabinowitz, Education Division
Top image credits: Female cigar packers of Mexican descent at Kohlberg Factory, El Paso (detail). Photo credit: latinamericanstudies.org.