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The Denver Housemaids' Union was organized by Jane Street in 1916.


"....in one of the more curious chapters in US labor history, the housemaids of Denver organized themselves under the leadership of Jane Street in 1916. Domestics were traditionally the most isolated and subservient of workers, tucked away in the attics and basements of the rich, unable to leave the house except for an afternoon once every two weeks, with mistresses who acted like parents and spies as well as employers. Such working conditions bred resentment, but it was seldom expressed in collective action; more often, domestic workers flitted from job to job, in a pattern known among employers as 'the servant problem.' Jane Street, an independent-minded Colorado domestic worker, felt that of all the kinds of labor, hers bore 'the deepest taint of chattel slavery handed down from the time when it was a disgrace for a member of the master class to lace his own boots.' She was determined to give the 'ladies on the hill' in Denver a real servant problem by building a union of modern revolutionary housemaids who 'don't believe in mistresses or servants. They would do away with caste altogether. They believe in removing the degradation from domestic service by teaching their employers to look upon the hands that feed them and wash for them, and scrub for them with respect or fear and humility.' By March 19, 1916, after three months of intensive organizing, Jane Street had contacted enough domestic workers to hold a secret mass meeting, where they spoke of their grievances and formulated demands for the future: $12 a week, no work on Sundays, shorter hours, and better treatment.... The new [all-female, IWW] local had several tactics for raising wages and bettering conditions. It planned to build up a card file of all domestic jobs in Denver and make this information available to anyone looking for work. It would thus act as its own employment bureau and drive the 'employment sharks' out of business. It would focus on recalcitrant employers, making it impossible for them to get help unless they met the union's demands. And it would start its own boarding house, an organizing center where women could stay and leave their baggage while they looked for work. Jane Street was confident of success; as she told her fellow workers, 'You have one great advantage over your mistress. She must have you in her home. She won't wash her own dishes. You can get your rights by working on the individual woman.' The local at first met with great success. Its list of jobs grew from 300 in March to 2,000 in May and 6,000 in November. When there was an advertisement for a maid, dozens of 'union maids' would respond and demand the same price until the prospective employer was convinced that it was the going rate. The union also took up the IWW's militant language and tactics, including the threat of sabotage: 'It is almost uncanny the way dishes slip out of that girl's hands,' reported the Rocky Mountain News. 'Picture father putting on his favorite soft shirt to find that the new laundress 'sabotaged' it by using plenty of starch'.... As the local grew stronger, opposition began to come from the rich women of Denver, seconded on one side by the YWCA and on the other by employment bureaus whose businesses the union had destroyed. The YWCA urged the housemaids to join its ranks instead of the union. The employers organized their own group, called the Housewives' Assembly.... The methods used by the employment sharks were more devastating. When the local had first organized, the employment agencies had descended upon its meetings in pursuit of 'white slaves' for the whorehouses of the Far West. The girls appealed to their fellow workers in the IWW mixed local in Denver, who rose to the challenge with enthusiasm and 'foiled the white slavers and drove them away from our meetings. These fellow workers, though repeatedly threatened with bodily violence at the hands of the gang of white slavers, stood their ground and defended the girls.' But the underworld was not defeated so easily. In November 1916, the 'sharks' raided the union's office and captured its card file of employers.... The loss of the card file was a serious setback, but it did not destroy the local. A year later Jane Street wrote a fellow organizer in Tulsa that they had moved into a new office and were growing stronger every day. And the union was spreading across the country: domestic workers in Salt Lake City organized in June 1916, followed by those in Duluth, Chicago, Cleveland, and Seattle. Until World War I and the accompanying repression of the IWW interrupted the union's progress, its future looked bright indeed. Although male Wobblies had been willing to defend the women from white slavers, the question of sexuality divided the Denver IWW itself, as it did the labor and revolutionary movements as a whole. Some members of the IWW mixed local appeared to believe that the domestic workers' local was there to provide them with girlfriends and were enraged when they were barred from the women's clubhouse. They were no doubt outraged to begin with by the existence of an all-female local, a deviation from the IWW norm. Jane Street thought their objections more personal than principled, as she wrote a fellow Wobbly woman in 1917: '....The Mixed Local here in Denver has done us more harm than any other enemy, the women of Capital Hill, the employment sharks and the YWCA combined. They have cut us off from donations from outside locals, slandered this local and myself from one end of the country to the other, tried to disrupt us from within by going among the girls and stirring up trouble, they gave our clubhouse a bad name because they were not permitted to come out there, and finally they have assaulted me bodily and torn up our charter.'"

—Meredith Tax, The Rising of the Women: Feminist Solidarity and Class Conflict, 1880-1917


The Housemaids' Defiance


 

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