Union Maids in Action – The 1918 Steam Laundry Strike

Published by BC Labour Heritage Centre on

Content provided by Patricia Wejr and Rod Mickleburgh

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Cascade Dominion Laundry Employees Annual Picnic, Seaside Park, Sunshine Coast, BC June 29, 1918, (edited), Source: Stuart Thomson fonds, City of Vancouver Archives, CVA 99-5201.

The intense class struggle of the first two decades of the twentieth century in B.C. included a small but strong group of women. Many showed their mettle during early strikes. An example was the gutsy strike by Vancouver laundry workers in 1918, the majority of whom were women.

Talks of joining a union began in earnest in the spring of 1918. Once the union had formed they tried to negotiate with seven Vancouver steam laundry owners, but it was fruitless. On September 3, the Laundrymens’ Association issued an ultimatum—laundry workers had five days to withdraw from the union, or quit. On September 8, the strike was on.

Helena Gutteridge, a renowned suffragist, social reformer and union organizer was appointed by the Vancouver Labour Council to organize the laundry workers. Photo: BC Federationist, Sept 15, 1915.

The strike lasted four months against virulent opposition from the owners. Support from others in the trade union movement was critical. By the end of October the strike fund was sufficient to provide strikers between $7 – $15 per week, depending on the number of dependents. Small family-run laundries operating at the same time refused to cross picket lines.

The Province, Oct 22, 1918.

One laundry shut down and six had reduced operations, using strikebreakers to keep open. Scabs were pelted with rotten tomatoes, heckling and other tactics to prevent their entry and exit from the laundries. Steam engineers who belonged to a different union, walked out in sympathy.

A tenative agreement was reached in October, however the employer would not agree to a union shop, nor would they reinstate all the strikers. The strikers were determined to stay out.

The deadly Spanish Flu was raging at the time, and the public feared unwashed laundry would make the situation worse. The union offered to clean hospital and military laundry under conditions. There was no response.

Vancouver Sun, Oct 20, 1918

In December, the provincial Minimum Wage Board set the wage for female laundry workers at $13.50 a week, and that was enough to end the strike. The union ensured the 100 workers who were blacklisted were given financial support until they found other work.