Domestic workers organized in the IWW 100 years ago

Excerpts from a letter detailing an IWW domestic workers union a century ago.

Fellow Worker (FW) Jane Street’s letter to Mrs. Elmer S. Bruse is one of the most profound pieces of IWW history. FW Street, of Denver, sent this letter to a domestic worker organizer in Tulsa, Okla., in 1917. It was stolen by federal agents and was only discovered in FBI files in 1976.

It shows how the IWW went about organizing a very marginalized section of the working class. It also addresses the sexism encountered by the Domestic Workers Industrial Union from other IWW members. I’ve always been inspired by this letter because it has practical lessons for us today. I can see a similar effort being made in restaurants and other workplaces, especially in medium-sized towns.

We had to cut a great deal of the letter for space. I encourage you to look at http://www.iww.org for the full text.

- F.N. Brill

Letter to Mrs. Elmer S. Bruse

Your letter of the 28th received, also the one of several weeks ago, which was read at our business meeting with great applause.

I am not so presumptuous as to suppose that no method of organizing can be used successful with the domestic workers than the one which was used here. However, I can give you the benefit of my experiences and observation in the work here and the conclusions at which we have arrived.

My method [of organizing] was very tedious. I worked at housework for three months, collecting names all the while. When I was off of a job I rented a room and put an ad in the paper for a housemaid. Sometimes I used a box number and sometimes I used my address. The ad was worded something like this, “Wanted, Housemaid for private family, $30, eight hours daily.” I would write them letters afterwards and have them call and see me ... Sometimes I would engage myself to as many as 25 jobs in one day, promising to call the next day to everyone that phoned. I would collect the information secured in this way. If any girl wanted any of the jobs, she could go out and say that they called her up the day before.

I secured 300 names in this way. I had never mentioned the IWW to any of them, for I expected them to be prejudiced, which did not prove the case. I picked out 100 of the most promising...and sent them invitations to attend a meeting. There were about 35 came. Thirteen of the 35 signed the application for a charter. So don’t get discouraged.

We have been organized [for] about one year. In this time we have interviewed personally in our office about 1,500 or 2,000 girls...placing probably over 1,000 in jobs. We have on our books the names of 155 members, only about 83 of whom we can actually call members.

How they organized

However, we have got results. We have raised wages, shortened hours, bettered conditions in hundreds of places. For instance, if you want to raise a job from $20 to $30…you can have a dozen girls answer an ad and demand $30—even if they do not want work at all. Or call up the woman and tell her you will accept the position at $20. Then she will not run her ad the next day. Don’t go. Call up the next day and ask for $25 and promise to go (and don’t go). On the third day she will say, “Come on out and we will talk the matter over.” You can get not only the wages, but shortened hours and lightened labor as well.

We keep a record of every job advertised in every paper. As when they advertise in the papers, a girl can go out to them without their knowing that she is in the IWW at all. We make a note of the wages, the size of the family and the house, etc. To give girls this information is to save them a great deal of time.

If a girl decides to shorten hours on the job by refusing to work afternoons...as a rule her employer does not fire her until she secures another girl. She calls up an employment shark ...with the union office in operation, no girl arrives. The employer advertises in the paper. We catch her ad and send out a girl who refuses to do the same thing. If you have a union of only four girls and you can get them consecutively on the same job you soon have job control.

However, it is necessary to have rebels who will actually do these things on the job.

It is a hard matter to get girls outside the organization to attend a meeting. We have formulated no scale of hours or wages, for the reason that we could not enforce them. We are able however to raise wages and shorten hours on individual jobs by striking on the job and by systematic work at the office.

Sexism within the IWW

The Mixed Local [similar to a General Membership Branch] here in Denver has done us more harm than any other enemy. They have cut us off from donations from outside locals, slandered this local and myself from one end of the country to the other...they gave our club house a bad name because they were not permitted to come out there, and finally they have assaulted me bodily and torn up our charter.

At present we are without due[s] stamps and without membership books. Meanwhile the work of fighting the boss goes merrily on. We have taken in about 28 new members since our charter was destroyed.

I am telling you about this, not because I think there will come a time when you will profit by my experiences, but because we need the support of the IWW every place.

What I am telling you is not merely a personal matter with me...but now this opposition has spread not only in this local but to all domestic workers’ locals. For a domestic workers’ local to spring up anywhere and achieve success is a monument to their treachery and false prophecy against us.

I am so sorry to tell you of these things. I have tried to keep out of this letter the bitterness that surges up in me. But when one looks upon the slavery on all sides that enchain the workers—these women workers sentenced to hard labor and solitary confinement on their prison jobs in the homes of the rich—and these very men who forgot their IWW principles in their opposition to us—when we look about us, we soon see that the Method of Emancipation that we advocate is greater than any or all of us and that the great principles and ideals that we stand for can completely overshadow the frailties of human nature.

Stick to your domestic workers’ union, fellow worker, stick to it with all the persistence and ardor that there is in you. Every day some sign of success will thrill your blood and urge you on! Keep on with the work.

Jane Street, Sec. of the Denver IWW Domestic Workers Industrial Union

P.S. We are having some interesting times collecting bills. There is a lawyer here who has volunteered his services. Most of our bills are settled out of court. In compiling information on jobs it is well to put the name and business of the employer’s husband on the card. To send a business man a “dun” bearing the IWW seal is to become a first class bill collector. This will help you to get girls to do delegate work. Such a girl boosts the union to the skies.

You must open your employment office to all domestic workers regardless of whether they join or not, if you would cripple the employment sharks.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (March 2014)