Yale Union Laundry Strike

Strike Centennial

Since its inception in 2009, Yale Union has been compiling an archive of articles, images, and documents relating to the Yale Union building’s history and its role in the 1919 Portland laundry workers’ strike. This website makes public this decade-long archival project, in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the strike. It serves as a publicly accessible resource in an effort to recognize the workers’ struggles at Yale Laundry (later known as Yale Union Laundry) and at Portland’s other industrial laundries.

In 1908, Charles F. Brown constructed the Yale Laundry building, a 30,000 sq. ft. steam-powered industrial laundry on East Portland’s 10th Avenue between Morrison and Belmont. The city block where the Yale Laundry building is situated was a sloping wetland within the traditional homelands of the Multnomah, Chinook, Kathlamet, Clackamas, Tualatin Kalapuya, Molalla, and other peoples Indigenous to the Lower Columbia River Basin. In the mid-19th century, settler colonists forcibly expelled these peoples, drained and platted the wetlands, and bought and sold the land for profit.

The same year the Yale Laundry building was constructed, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision was passed called Muller v. Oregon. According to court documents, Curt Muller, the owner of Portland’s Grand Laundry, compelled Emma Gotcher, a union sympathizer and the wife of a leader of the Shirtwaist and Laundryworkers’ Union, to work more than ten hours a day. Since 1903, the ten-hour workday had been the legal state limit of women’s working hours in the laundry industry. The Supreme Court ruled against Muller and upheld Oregon’s ten-hour law, making the case for protective labor laws that would curb exploitative employers and protect workers’ rights. It would also perpetuate a long and ongoing history of state control over women’s bodies. The prosecution, argued by future Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, denied female workers the right to determine their own labor contracts in excess of ten hours in the interest of protecting their fertility and maternal health for the propagation of the race and the assurance of a future labor force.[1] 

The laundry industry was a particularly nefarious corner of the industrialized world. Related to the textile industry in that it paid extremely low wages for repetitive and dangerous work, it was one of the few heavy industries that permitted women to work in its factories. It is now understood as a highly gendered and racialized industry that promoted racial segregation, gender inequality, and perpetuated cycles of poverty.

Commercial laundries used the rhetoric of whiteness to simultaneously sell their services and to denigrate Chinese- and Japanese-owned laundries, which were established as a result of discriminatory hiring practices that barred non-whites from working in the major industries. By contrast, the household services and textile industries permitted the labor of non-whites and women, and became deeply racialized as a result. The Yale Laundry, like others in Portland with equally aspirationally grandiose names—Superior, Troy, Excelsior—hired almost exclusively white workers.

By 1916, 125 laundry workers labored at Yale Laundry, the majority of them white women who earned an average of $.13 per hour (equivalent to $3.33 in 2019). Incoming soiled laundry was checked, marked, and sorted on the first floor of the building, away from the lobby, by unskilled female workers. It was moved to the basement via conveyor belt for washing and centrifugal extracting in large belt-driven drums operated typically by men. The shakers, most often girls earning the lowest wages, would shake excess water out of each piece of laundry, and send it upstairs to the well-lit second floor for the finish work. Upstairs, the manglers were women who operated machines with steam or gas heated rollers that pressed out the laundry. From there the laundry went to the women who starched, then to those who put the laundry in drying closets, which were enclosed boxes heated by pipes from the boiler. The last step of the finish work was ironing, done by the most skilled female workers, with gas-heated irons. Injuries were commonplace.

Handling soiled laundry put the health of the laundry workers’ at risk. They were in danger of contracting infectious diseases such as typhoid, tuberculosis, syphilis, gonorrhea, smallpox, and scarlet fever. Heat, generated by the constant supply of coal and fuel oil, was the medium through which these pathogens were transmitted to workers’ bodies. Temperatures were recorded as high as 135° in Portland laundries of the 1910s, and workers who fainted were regularly carried outside, revived, and put back to work. At the Yale Laundry, geological extraction fueled the exploitative labor of the white female working class body to maintain the bodily cleanliness of the middle and upper classes of Portland.

Inspired by Seattle’s massive General Strike in early 1919, Portland’s industrial laundry workers went on strike in September and called for a minimum wage of $18 per week (up from $12) and for employers to officially recognize the Laundry Workers’ Union.[2] During the strike, Portland’s industrial laundries operated at 50% capacity while agitators staged walk-outs, workers picketed and were blacklisted, strikebreakers were brought in, street fights ensued, and cases of assault and arson were reported.

The Oregon Labor Press began reporting as early as 1917 that laundry workers were meeting, holding fundraising dances, and discussing the possibilities of unionizing. As reported in the pro-labor print media, in the final years of WWI, Portland’s cost of living had increased 100%, the price of laundry work increased 300%, while laundry workers’ wages increased only 30%.[3] It was reported that the owners of Yale Laundry were particularly zealous in discharging and blacklisting union sympathizers. A woman employed there litigated for being fired for joining the local Laundry Workers’ Union No. 70, but a Portland jury made up of “businessmen and employers” upheld her termination despite the Oregon law that forbade discharge of workers for unionizing.[4] A powerful propaganda campaign against the strikers was launched in the press by the Laundrymen’s Association, which took out weekly ads in The Oregonian warning the public about the “Bolshevik” spirit disrupting and raising the cost of laundry services. Home washing machine manufacturers capitalized on the strike, taking out ads in newspapers that advocated for a consumerist political disengagement: “Laundry Strike Settled—as far as you are concerned if you install Crystal Electric Washer & Wringer.”[5] 

On September 24, The Oregonian reported that the laundry owners considered the strike a failure because work was still proceeding, while the Oregon Labor Press reported three days later in a gigantic bold lede: “STRIKE GROWS: Unions Give Thousands of Dollars to Help Organize… Support by Labor is Greatest in Local Labor History.” On October 4, a coalition of laundry owners filed an injunction to forbid picket lines near the laundry buildings in order to suppress pro-union sentiment and defecting. James F. Brock, the international president of the Laundry Workers’ Union arrived in Portland on October 7 to rally strikers and sympathizers, and engage fundraising efforts to provide for the immediate needs of the workers on strike. Brock arranged for picketers to ride in cars and follow the delivery wagons of laundries hostile to the union to publicly declare the drivers enemies of the union. Subject to intense police scrutiny while in Portland, Brock also furthered plans for the union to build its own cooperative laundry business, issuing a rousing statement published in the Oregon Labor Press on November 8: “The strikers are looking forward with great interest to the near future when organized labor will have created a perpetual weapon in the form of a union cooperative laundry to carry on a vigorous campaign against the various scab laundries of Portland, and compel the union-hating laundry owners of the city to pay a decent wage to the laundry girls.” The strike continued through December, and the unionists declared victory in early 1920 when they opened the union-owned and operated Victory Laundry on SE 69th and Foster Rd.

One enduring result of the strike was the consolidation of some of Portland’s competing laundry companies with the goal of lowering overhead costs and centralizing power in the industry. This amalgamation undermined organized labor and put control of capital into fewer hands which had even more resources. In the 1920s, Yale Laundry merged with Union Laundry—a misnomer; it was not unionized—to become Yale Union Laundry.

Since 2009, the Yale Union laundry building has been home to Yale Union, a contemporary art center. In the ensuing decade, the neighborhood surrounding the Yale Union building has exploded with redevelopment, while new residents, businesses, and vehicles have changed the street level experience of the neighborhood. New zoning laws that went into effect in 2018 codify the displacement of warehouses, social services, and the houseless, while inviting tech incubators, startups, flex spaces, and the “creative class.”[6] The repurposing of what was a vacant industrial building into a contemporary art center was both an indicator and an accelerator of this dramatic shift in the social fabric of the neighborhood.

The Yale Union building was constructed for the laundry company’s investors to accumulate capital from the extraction of value from the human bodies that labored here, and is a place where a long history of legislative and political control over the bodies of women was enacted over the first decades of its existence. The 1919 strike was a pivotal moment in the women’s labor movement, Progressive Era feminism, and American anti-communist sentiment known as the Red Scare. Further, it was a brief moment of disruption in the historic trajectory of Yale Union’s physical site, from settler colonization, to capital accumulation, to labor exploitation, to neoliberal gentrification and urban displacement. In the spirit of commemorative justice, this strike centennial project seeks to acknowledge these legacies of extractive violence by remembering the workers who inhabited this building, and to investigate embedded histories at the intersection of labor, gender, power, and property.

1 “That woman’s physical structure and the performance of maternal functions place her at a disadvantage in the struggle for subsistence is obvious. This is especially true when the burdens of motherhood are upon her. Even when they are not, by abundant testimony of the medical fraternity, continuance for a long time on her feet at work, repeating this from day to day, tends to injurious effects upon the body, and, as healthy mothers are essential to vigorous offspring, the physical wellbeing of woman becomes an object of public interest and care in order to preserve the strength and vigor of the race.” Curt Muller v. The State of Oregon, 1908, 208 U.S. 412

2 Adjusted for inflation, $18 in 1919 would equal $267 in 2019. Oregon’s current minimum wage is $11.25 per hour, which equates to $450 per week on a 40-hour work week.

3 “Laundry Trust Starves Children: Profiteering Laundrymen are Shown Up,” Oregon Labor Press, October 18, 1919, p. 1.

4 “Laundry Workers Hold Interesting Meeting: In Spite of Persecution by Employers Many New Members Added to Roll at Each Meeting,” Oregon Labor Press, October 6, 1917, p. 1.

5 Advertisement in The Oregonian, September 30, 1919, p. 14.

6 See the Central City 2035 Plan for the Central Eastside: https://www.portlandoregon.gov/bps/article/561906

This website is compiled by Hope Svenson and Andrea Glaser. Special thanks to Yoko Ott, Jessica Powers, Lisa Radon, Alex Mahan, and Flint Jamison.