The Laundry Workers' Uprising and the Fight for Democratic Unionism

tags: unions, African American history, immigration, labor history, womens history

Jenny Carson is an Associate Professor of History at Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University) in Toronto, Canada. In 2021 she published A Matter of Moral Justice: Black Women Laundry Workers and the Fight for Justice (University of Illinois Press). 

Jenny Carson profiles some of the dynamic early leaders of the New York laundry workers union uprising of the 1930s, and how their fight for a democratic union met resistance from a notable CIO union, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers. It is a window into her longer treatment in A Matter of Moral Justice, published by University of Illinois Press –editor

It was June 16, 1937, the twilight of the Great Depression, when more than one thousand laundry workers gathered in the auditorium at New York City’s Rand School of Social Science for what would later be remembered as the workers’ day of independence. Most of the participants, significant numbers of whom were Black, came from the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, where they had recently led a fourteen-week strike against substandard working conditions and sweatshop wages.

One of the leaders of that strike was Trinidadian transplant and long-time laundry activist Charlotte Adelmond. A militant Garveyite who was known for using “head butts” to slam abusive bosses to the ground, all without ever lifting a finger, Adelmond had been trying to organize her co-workers since 1933, using her own home as a campaign base. The Trinidadian organizer represented the inside workers, the mostly women and people of color who worked inside the plants washing, folding, drying and ironing clothes and linen. Adelmond was joined that summer by her good friend and fellow laundry activist Dollie Lowther Robinson. Robinson had migrated from North  Carolina to Brooklyn with her mother in 1930 as a young teenager. Like so many other Black female migrants, she began her wage-earning career in a power laundry (by 1930 the power laundry employed more Black women than any other industry in the United States).

As organizers, Adelmond and Robinson worked alongside Louis Simon, Financial Secretary of Teamsters’ Local 810, the union that represented the white men who drove the city’s laundry trucks, as well as laundry worker and socialist Noah C. Walter of the Harlem-based Negro Labor Committee. Representing different constituencies and ideological commitments, the worker leaders were united by their recent activism on the picket lines and by their determination to halt the downward spiral in wages and working conditions that accompanied the Depression. Most significantly, they enjoyed the support of rank-and-file workers radicalized by fourteen hour work days, by racist and sexist treatment and by poverty wages.

The employers were not the only target of the laundry workers’ ire that summer. Adelmond, Robinson and their co-workers denounced the American Federation of Labor for its tepid trade unionism and reliance on a craft union model that divided the workers along occupational and by extension, race and gender lines. Fresh from a wave of strikes that had shut down some of the city’s largest laundries and inspired by the promises of the newly-organized Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO), the laundry workers voted unanimously to leave the AFL and join the CIO. Adelmond donated some of her own money to pay for the local industrial union charter issued by the CIO in June of 1937.

Read entire article at Labor and Working Class History Association

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