In 1945 the IWWU’s members won the historic Laundry Strike and earned for all Irish workers a second week’s annual holidays from the following year. Here, based closely on the longer account of the events involved contained in Mary Jones’ history of the union: “These Obstreperous Lassies” is the story of that success.
Problems in the laundry industry had been brewing through “The emergency” with workers, who were less well paid than their counterparts in Britain or other women in the likes of the tobacco industry, increasingly frustrated by the conditions in which they were employed.
“Laundry work,” said the union in a statement intended to make the case for additional time off, “is performed standing in a heated atmosphere causing, in hot weather especially, great fatigue, excessive perspiration and blistered feet….laundresses often worked from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. in order to meet demand.”
Their cause was not helped by the way in which many commercial firms were undermined by institutional laundries using what, in some instances, amounted to little more than slave labour. The union sought to canvass these institutions in the hope of persuading them not to undermine the working conditions of its members but with little success. The stakes involved were highlighted in April 1941 when Bloomfield Laundry lost a military contract to the Magdalen Asylum, Donnybrook and 25 women lost their jobs.
In 1945, having commonly worked large amounts of overtime through the war years, the laundry section membership voted by 779 to 54 for strike action in pursuit of the additional holidays which had been a demand for some time of the union movement generally. The Federated union of Employers (FUE), formed in 1943, said the holidays issue was one for the government to legislate on.
The union served strike notice but the first action taken was an overtime ban. Relations between the two deteriorated and on July 21st the strike began with many of Dublin’s most famous hotels – the Hibernian, Shelbourne and Dolphin – amongst those most adversely affected. Hospital laundries were exempted from the action.
Minister of Industry and Commerce Sean Lemass said that any concessions should be linked to greater productivity but the members rejected the suggestion and, a week after the strike began, issued a call for “Fair Play” while proclaiming “The Right to Leisure”. They called on Lemass to intervene in order to help to resolve the dispute but they got little response.
There was, however, support from other unions, many of which recognised the women’s cause as their own. The National Secretary of the United Stationary Engine Drivers said that:
“we will support your union in every possible way; the people on strike are fighting our fight”.
The press was less sympathetic and speculated about the implications for public health if the dispute continued. For some employers, meanwhile, the consequences of strike went beyond the financial with a Mr Brenner of the Swastika Laundry in Ballsbridge reported to have advocated meeting the workers’ demands after having apparently been obliged to wash his own underpants.
The women themselves were suffering rather more significant hardship as the strike wore on but members from other sections contributed to the fund, flag days were held and other unions contributed funds as well.
Copies of a song, to be sung to the tune of Lilli Marlene, were also printed up and sold by members and supporters to bring in much needed cash.
Outside the laundry we put up a fight
For a Fortnight’s Holiday.
They said we would have to strike,
So we keep marching up and down,
As we nearly did for half a crown.
We are a fighting people,
Who can’t be kept down.
Then they gave us one week,
But we wanted two,
And we well deserved it
For the work we had to do.
There for a long nine hours a day.
In heat and steam we have to stay.
Then they gave us one week out of fifty-two.
The employers put a statement in the “Irish Press”,
It was all untrue. But how could people guess?
So now that they have heard our story true,
We leave it all to you,
To help us in our battle,
To gain what we are due.
The union fought its PR battle on other fronts too, however, and in a letter to The Irish Times, they mocked some of its best known columnists….
“We read your paper sometimes pasted up in those Fleet Street windows and we see it full of news about foreign countries and pictures of people no-one ever saw in Dublin. And Mr Quidnunc writes about all the fun going on at the Tattoo and the food and drink at the great ball and the boxing match with Mr Lemass sitting in the £10 seat to watch it. And Myles na Gopaleen (gCopaleen) has a column all to himself. Is it really funny? If he wrote it in Irish we might understand it better than that grand English of his. And you had nearly a page of a letter from New York telling how the girls there do their hair. But for all that you only have two lines or so for 1,500 Dublin women on strike and no word at all about the sort of work they had to do.”
From then on, Quidnunc devoted rather more space to the dispute and, in the words of the next IWWU annual report, “dramatised the situation effectively” Public opinion started to get behind the strikers in the weeks that followed and by the start of October even some employers from other sectors had started to side with them against the laundry owners. The FUE tried to get the workers back by promising that the holidays issue would be “favourably considered” but the women and their union held firm.
By the end of the month, following further attempts by the employers’ side to undermine the solidarity displayed by their staff, victory for the workers had started to look inevitable and on the 30th, some 14 weeks after the strike had started, it was conceded to them in writing.