Fascinating letter from the secretary of the domestic workers' section of the Industrial Workers of the World union in Denver, 1917 about their activities and the sexism they faced from other union members. The letter was illegally seized by the government and only discovered nearly 60 years later.
The 1917 letter by Jane Street, Secretary of the Denver IWW Domestic Workers Industrial Union, is available to us because of a felony committed by the US government.
The Justice Department illegally intercepted Street's letter and did not deliver it. It was ultimately stored in the Washington DC National Archives (Department of Justice, Record Group 60, File 18701-28). It was discovered 59 years later by Daniel T. Hobby and printed in the Winter issue of Labor History that year.
The letter is interesting for several different reasons.
First, it shows the unusual and creative ways the IWW used to organize workers considered "unorganizable" by more established craft unions like those in the American Federation of Labor.
It also informs us how early militant women fought against sexism in the union movement.
A casual reading might lead one to think that the Denver "Mixed Local" was the dominant IWW group in Denver while Street's Domestic local was a sort of "ladies auxiliary." This would be incorrect. Street's local was the first IWW group in Denver and inspired the formation of the Mixed Local. (See the August 19, 1916 issue of the Industrial Worker.)
The Mixed Local was not a group of men and women, as might be inferred from the word "mixed." Rather, IWW locals were organized on industrial lines. Industrial or pure locals, like Street's Domestic Workers, were established once organizing succeeded. Until that time, all organizing took place through multi-industrial or mixed locals.
Street's complaints of IWW National Office inefficiency are echoed my many other organizers of the time, and did not necessarily reflect sexist bias, as shown by the support given Street in the Industrial Worker.
Street did not believe "sisterhood is powerful." For Street, relations between the female domestic worker and her female employer were not those of sisterhood but class hostility.
Finally, I think her letter shows us today what a single creative organizer can accomplish, even if some of Street's methods used in organizing were not "abstractly correct." I in no way wish to diminish the role played by Big Bill and others at the National Office, but it easy to forget the field organizers (local leaders) whot recruited the rank-and-file workers.
Street, by the way, despite her problems with the sexism in the Mixed Local, went on to become the district IWW leader for all the Denver area locals.
Letter from Jane Street 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.
I hope that you have secured the required number of signatures by this time. My method 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. If they came direct I would usually have another ad in the same paper, advertising for a situation and using my telephone number. I would have enough answers to supply the applicants. 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 of the names and sent them invitations to attend a meeting. There were about thirty-five came. Thirteen of the 35 signed the application for a charter. Thirteen out of three hundred for three months time! So don't get discouraged.
We have been organized about one year. In this time we have interviewed personally in our office about 1500 or 2000 girls, telling them about the IWW and making them more rebellious, and placing probably over 1000 in jobs. We have on our books the names of 155 members, only about 83 of whom we can actually call members. A great many girls leave town and some them in town drift away and we are unable to locate them. In lining up girls through an employment office there are a large number who pay 50 cents or perhaps $1.00 on their initiation fee and whom we never get a chance to reach again. They agree to join and think favorably of the union while here but their interest is not sufficient to hold them. We put these names on our books -- that is, we have made it a practice to let anyone desiring to pay their initiation fee in installments. It would be well for you to adopt this plan also, as money is very hard to get, especially from girls who are out of work, and if you succeed in getting to pay anything at all on their initiation fee they are more likely to return.
An employment office is quite expensive. You must have an office in some good downtown location. You must have a phone, which is quite an item of expense. You will be charged the rate for an employment office or for an association. At first we had to pay $4.00 a month for, I believe, 60 calls and 1 1/2 cents on excess calls, sometimes amounting up to $14.00 a month. We now have it reduced to $8.00 flat rate, something we could not get in the beginning. besides this, you must subscribe to all of the daily papers, and run an ad daily in at least one of them. We also run a "day work" ad for our laundresses, etc. and our bill runs from $7.00 to $10 per month. The best daily paper in Denver discriminates against us and it would cost us three prices to advertise in it. They will try to charge you "employment office rates."
However, with our handful of girls and our big expenses, we have got results. We actually have POWER to do things. We have raised wages, shortened hours, bettered conditions in hundreds of places. This is not merely a statement. It is a fact that is registered not only in black and white on the cards in our files in the office but in the flesh and blood of the girls on the job.
For a number of housegirls to simply own, collectively, a telephone and to use it systematically is to raise wages all over a city. For instance, if you want to raise a job from $20 to $30 dollars. You can have a dozen girls answer an ad and demand $30, -- even if they do not want work at all. Or, it can be done in an easier way. Call up the woman and tell her you will accept the position at $20, that you will be sure to be out. 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 do the same thing over again. 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.
In regard to our employment office: We keep a record of every job advertised in every paper. very few employers ever apply at our office. It is not an advantage anyway. As when the advertise in the papers, a girl can go out to them without their knowing that she is in the IWW at all. And, of course, they are not anxious to get IWW girls. We make a note of the wages, the size of the family and the house, etc. etc. To give girls this information is to save them a great deal of time, carfare, telephone money, etc. and to attract them to your headquarters. That means that you soon take them away from the employment sharks, who begin to fight you and lie about you to the girls at the very beginning. However, you actually in a very short while practically close their officers as far as domestic "help" is concerned.
This means a tremendous advantage. If a girl decides to shorten hours on the job by refusing to work afternoons, or refuses to attend the furnace or to use the vacuum, etc. as a rule her employer does not fire her until she secures another girl. She calls up an employment shark and asks for a girl. With the union office in operation, no girl arrives, the shark's business having been crippled. The employer advertises in the paper. We catch her ad and send out a girl who refuses to do the same thing as the other girl. If you have a union of only four girls and you can get them consecutively on the same job you soon have job control. The nerve-wrecked, lazy society woman is not hard to conquer.
However, it is necessary to have rebels who will actually do these things on the job. Your employment office functions in this direction also, as you can force workers into rebellion through having, after a fashion, control of the market just as the old shark forced them into slavery.
It is a hard matter to get girls outside the organization to attend a meeting. Their hours are so long and they have so little time of their own that they are either not inclined to [or] are too tired to comes. Laundresses can do a lot of job agitation, but otherwise most of the agitation must be carried on in your office.
It was one of my pet schemes to have a club house. I figured that the association of the girls with each other would make them more rebellious, and that with a home to come back to they would be more rebellious, that grocery bills when off the job would diminish, etc., etc. We tried this for three months. We lost so much money that we are now almost swamped with debts. We got a nice rooming house at only $40 per month furnished. It was out on the Hill in the very midst of the enemy. The house only contained ten rooms with only six to rent. The girls who really made use of it get along fine. From the revolutionary standpoint it was a success. The girls missed it when we had to give it up. They used to come in there not only when they were off of a job but would in evenings when they were working and would have some place to go and get used to shortening their hours. But financially it was a failure. Coal was so high that even if we had the house filled all the time, which was not the case, that it would not pay expenses.
In Oklahoma you have the advantage of dealing with women workers who have had some previous knowledge of organization. They had a rather strong union there, I am informed, about six years ago. It extended over several cities. I understand that they once had a club house and an employment office. I think that they excluded the negroes, who therefore served as scabs against the union. I know a man here who was the husband of one of the organizers and I can get you some more data on the subject if you desire it. The Socialist women got in on the thing and weakened the fighting spirit by teaching political action.
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.
I would advise you strongly against trying to have your headquarters in connection with the other IWW local there. You are not dealing with women rebels -- scissorines having all the earmarks of slavery and the prejudices of bourgeoisie philosophy. Sex can come rushing into your office like a great hurricane and blow all the papers of industrialism out the windows.
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 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. They have probably told some big lie about us to headquarters because we have not yet received a charter although we have been without one for over six weeks and headquarters has refused us credit. I presume that it will necessitate an investigation that will cost more than our whole per capita dues for the time we have been organized. And we have done nothing to be "investigated" about.
Phil Engle, a soap boxer, told me about nine months ago that he "would see me on the outside of the IWW" before he got through with me, and he had worked with maniacal fervor toward that end ever since. I reproached him once for not appearing to speak and refusing to go to jail when five of us fellow workers went during a free speech fight her last fall. After we won the street corner he and his bunch took it away from us and held it down for months. (He didn't believe in street speaking when we went to jail.)
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 and I have talked the glories of industrial unionism and the One big Union to probably three time that number here in the office.
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. If we had enough money we might circularize the locals. Phil Engle has spent most of his time trying to bust us and the rest of it in covering up his dirty work by speaking for the Everett Defense, etc.
What I am telling you is not merely a personal matter with me. It was perhaps in the beginning, 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, and they therefore discourage them in an effort to protect themselves. At the A.W.O. Convention last fall our representatives could not even get a hearing.
I am so sorry to tell you of these things -- you who are so full of hope and faith and spirit for the revolution. 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.
If I can assist you in any way, if my advice proves of value to you, or if I have not made clear everything about our card system, etc., write me again, and I will not be so tardy in my reply as I have been this time. Let us know how you are getting along. Your success will spur on the girls here.
Yours for industrial freedom,
Sec. Domestic Workers' Industrial Union
IWW Local #113.
P.S. -- I enclose the only printed matter I can find to send you. We would have some printed if we had the money. They would be of help to us at this time. However, we had some 4000 printed when we first started and they were distributed out on the Hill where the slaves work. They cost us, (the two lots) something like $20 or more and they did not bring in $1.50, I don't believe. I don't know of anyone bringing a circular down here and joining. Most all of our members were secured through our employment office. House to house work we found quite impractical. The girls are beginning to do quite a lot of delegate work. It is just now beginning to work.
To tell you the truth things are humming around our office. In site of all this mournful tale I have told you about the Mixed Local here, our own girls are more active than ever before, we take in members far more rapidly. It seem [sic] nothing can stop us. We are counting on increasingly rapidly enough to pay off our bills and get square with headquarters. We have moved into two nice bright offices. I think that to put up a good front is a good policy. We take in members far easier than we did in the other building last fall because our seeming prosperity seems to impress them. They see that we are active and doing business and they are more willing to join. We were active in the Charles building, but our office was not so comfortable and the girls did not hang around it like they do here.
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.
Yours for a speedy abolition of domestic slavery,
Notes on the Reclamation of this piece of "Herstory"
Original by Jane Street, Domestic Workers IU Local #113, 1917.
Discovered by Daniel T. Hobby and published in Labor History, 1976.
Rediscovered by tallpaul [at] pipeline.com and republished in The Lower East Side ROSE, 1995.
Republished for the web by Deke Nihilson, 1996.
Updated by x344543 in 2002 and 2011.
Taken from http://www.iww.org/history/library/Street/letter