ON THIS DATE in (1864), nineteen-year-old Kate Mullany (sometimes spelled Mullaney) launched a strike involving about 300 women from 14 Troy, New York, laundries. Weeks earlier the Irish immigrant and commercial laundry worker had formed one of the first all-female unions in the U.S.
Working 85 hours a week washing collars at a laundry, Mullany received a weekly paycheck of just $3 to $4, a sum that shrunk if she damaged any fabrics. Meanwhile, employees at her Troy, New York, shop sustained frequent injuries from harsh chemicals in boiling water and hard-to-wield irons that caused frequent burns.
After just five days the laundry owners gave into the union’s demand of a 25 percent wage increase and safer working conditions.
Under Mullany’s leadership, the union voted to strike again in 1866 and 1868, both times winning higher wages from ownership. In 1868, the National Labor Union president called her “one of the smartest and most energetic women in America” and appointed her as assistant secretary, making Mullany the first woman to hold a national labor position.