El Paso Laundry Strike


By: Mia Gomez and Katherine Kuehler Walters

Type: General Entry

Published: July 30, 2022

Updated: July 30, 2022


On October 27, 1919, nearly 200 Mexican and Mexican American women, all laundry workers from El Paso’s Acme Laundry, went on strike after Acme’s president and manager, Frank B. Fletcher, fired two co-workers, Isabel and Manuela Hernández, and refused to rehire them. The two women, along with other Mexican women laundry workers, had established a local of the International Laundry Workers’ Union (ILWU), with the help from local leaders of the Central Labor Union, on October 23, 1919. Within a few days of the initial walk-out, the strike intensified when competing steam laundries had their employees do Acme’s work and those employees joined Acme’s strikers in solidarity and frustration. The union, through spokesperson Francisca Saenz, demanded an increase in pay, end to the dual-wage system, better working conditions, union recognition, and reemployment of Isabel and Manuela Hernández. Within four days nearly 600 women laundry workers and laundry wagon drivers, who had their own union, were on strike. It was one of several laundry strikes in a wave of labor activity in 1919.

During the Progressive Era and World War I, women in Texas gained increased access to employment outside of the household, and Mexicanas and Tejanas benefitted from this shift. At the same time, reform movements and labor organizations pushed state legislatures to pass minimum wage laws and work hour limits to protect working women. Due to cultural gender traditions, limited access to education (see MEXICAN AMERICANS AND EDUCATION), and contemporary racial views, most Mexican women found employment restricted to household-related occupations, such as domestic labor and work in laundries. In 1917, when El Paso’s population was more than 50 percent Latino, Mexican and Mexican American women made up more than 60 percent of the workforce in the city’s steam laundries. By 1920 they were 92 percent of El Paso’s laundry workers, many of whom lived in El Paso’s sister city, Ciudad Juárez, and crossed the border daily for work. Most were relegated to unskilled positions that paid on average $4 to $6 a week and worked ten- to twelve-hour shifts. Due to the racial views of laundry managers, Anglo women received the bulk of the skilled positions and were paid more per week than Mexican women in the same job. In addition, Mexican women in El Paso earned less than half of what their Anglo counterparts earned for the same jobs in Dallas, Houston, Galveston, and other Texas cities.

Central Labor Union (CLU) leaders, William J. Moran and John L. Hauswald, and Thomas J. Plunkett, took control of strike negotiations on behalf of the local ILWU and brought in Clemente Nicasio Idar, an American Federation Labor organizer (see Texas State Federation of Labor), to work with the women. Crescencia Madrid and Lola Armendariz, grievance committee leaders of the local ILWU, formed the women on strike into groups and sent them to pressure other workers to join the strike. These groups also tried, with limited success, to deter strikebreakers from taking shifts at the Acme, Troy, El Paso, Excelsior, and Elite laundries. The laundries that still had full crews refused to supply supplemental workers to Acme, Elite, and the others after union representatives threatened to respond with a call for a citywide laundry worker strike. The CLU finance committee raised funds for the laundry strike from other local unions and mutualistas. Women in the ILWU met in the Labor Temple, where they also knitted and sold clothing to help fund the strike.

Whereas local newspapers, Labor Advocate, La Patria, and La República, voiced support for the strike, the El Paso Herald and El Paso Morning Times referred to the women strikers, who were between the ages of fifteen and sixty, as “girls,” equated the strike with communism, and gave laundry owners a platform to disparage immigrant labor. Erman Ravel, owner of Excelsior Laundry, told the El Paso Herald that the finished product by Anglo workers was, “cleaner and whiter and better in every way.” Fletcher of Acme Laundry made misleading statements to newspapers about work conditions and pay, including a claim that he paid the women $9 a week on average. He later explained to the Texas Industrial Welfare Commission that he included the $16.55 per week paid to Anglo workers in his calculation and that he reserved skilled positions for Anglo women and a few American-born Mexicans.

During the strike, El Paso ILWU members Maria Valles, Epignia Silva, Fidencia Garcia, Teresa Aleman, Maria Santos, Manuela Hernandez, Doniciana Panales, Sara Alvides, Guadalupe Teran, and Cristela Serda, all from different laundries, testified about poor working conditions, long hours, and low wages to the Texas Industrial Welfare Commission in November 1919. Recently established under a 1919 Texas minimum wage law, the commission held hearings in El Paso and other industrial areas of the state to investigate work conditions and wages in an effort to set a state minimum wage for women and child workers. Laundry owners as well as manufacturers, saleswomen, seamstresses, labor activists, and city social service workers also testified in El Paso. The women, with Idar serving as an interpreter for some, gave details about their home life and expenses. When asked to estimate a comfortable living wage, their answers ranged from $12 to $19 a week, which aligned with University of Texas extension department’s estimate of $16.50 per week. Employers used racially derogatory stereotypes to argue against equal wages for Anglo and Mexican-heritage women. They claimed Mexican families could survive on much lower wages because their impoverishment required less money compared to Anglo employees who they suggested would starve if given the same wages as Mexican workers.

Although the El Paso laundry strike continued through the end of 1919, the ILWU failed to achieve its goals because racial and anti-immigrant views undercut union strength and disregarded the nature of employment along the U.S.-Mexico border. Idar tried to negotiate a minimum wage of $7.50, but the owners refused. According to newspapers, laundry businesses had resumed full operations as early as November 3, 1919, and police provided the businesses protection. Although owners claimed they replaced striking workers with American laborers, they recruited workers from Ciudad Juárez instead. This undermined the Laundry Worker Union’s strength because the CLU and the AFL did allow Mexican immigrant workers to become union members. In another major blow, the Laundry Drivers’ Union, which initially joined the strike, withdrew their support after a large number of its members, all of whom belonged to the American Legion, refused union orders and returned to work. The strike continued to lose momentum after newspapers published a letter signed by forty-four men and women of El Paso Laundry that included twenty-seven with Spanish surnames. The letter denounced the strike and claimed that they had been treated fairly by their employer. Ultimately, the laundry strike failed because Mexican laborers from Mexico and El Paso had few employment options and needed the family income. In mid-November CLU purchased its own laundry, named American Union Laundry, in which it employed ILWU members and set a minimum wage at $7.50. The Texas minimum wage law was never enforced and was repealed in 1921. See also EL PASO BATH HOUSE RIOTS (1917); LA MUJER OBRERA OF EL PASO; MAQUILADORAS; PECAN-SHELLERS' STRIKE; and TEX-SON GARMENT WORKERS' STRIKE.

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Abilene Daily Reporter, May 14, 1930. Teresa Palomo Acosta and Ruthe Winegarten, Las Tejanas: 300 Years of History(Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003). Austin Statesman, May 11, 1919. El Paso Herald, October 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 1919; November 3, 4, 14, 18, 20, 21, 1919. El Paso Times, October 29, 30, 31, 1919; November 1, 11, 1919. Mario T. García, "The Chicana in American History: The Mexican Women of El Paso, 1880–1920: A Case Study," Pacific Historical Review 49 (May 1980). Antoinette Sedillo López, ed., Latina Issues: Fragments of Historia(ella) (Herstory)(New York: Routledge, 1996). Vicki L. Ruíz and Virginia Sánchez Korrol, eds., Latinas in the United States: A Historical Encyclopedia (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006). “Teaching Women’s History: The El Paso Laundry Strike of 1919,” New York Historical Society: Women at the Center, July 19, 2018 (https://womenatthecenter.nyhistory.org/the-el-paso-laundry-strike-of-1919/), accessed November 17, 2021.

Categories:
  • Activism and Social Reform
  • Activists
  • Civic Leaders
  • Labor
  • Peoples
  • Mexican Americans
  • Women
Time Periods:
  • Progressive Era
Places:
  • Southwest Texas
  • El Paso

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Mia Gomez and Katherine Kuehler Walters, “El Paso Laundry Strike,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 11, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/el-paso-laundry-strike.

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July 30, 2022
July 30, 2022

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