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The 1811 Atlanta washerwoman strike

One of the very first union strikes in US history: ignited by thousands of African American women for high wages, respect, and taking charge over their work.

Atlanta: in the 1880s, more African American women worked as laundresses than in any other domestic work. The laundresses worked long, tiring hours making a monthly wage of $4 to $8.

In July 1881, 20 laundresses met to form the foundation of the Washing Society to seek higher pay, honor, and authority for their work and established a steady rate at $1 per dozen pounds of wash. They held a mass meeting and called a strike to achieve higher pay at a uniform rate.

Within three weeks, the Washing Society rose from 20 to 3,000 members.

The higher authorities resisted by arresting and fining the strikers, but the laundresses were undeterred. The white establishment got city politicians involved, and The City Council proposed that members of any washerwoman’s organization pay an annual fee of $25 and then offered nonprofit tax status to businesses that wanted to start commercial laundries. At the beginning of August 1811, the women strikers responded by issuing an ultimatum to the Mayor stating their acceptance to pay the fee in order to control the washing for the city but won’t stop the strike if their demand for increased wages is not met.

The washerwomen strike the other domestic workers in the city. The Hotel workers refused to work until their wages increased. Unlike the previous strike, the employers were aware of the intensity of the black labor unrest. The employers were not sure to find workers replacement, and the city might shut down

The strike not only ended with raised wages but also recognized black women workers as paramount to the New South economy. The White class was compelled to admit the visibility of Black Women Workers (who were former slaves).

Sameera Sulatana