The nation’s first bona-fide all-female union was formed in Troy 150 years ago under the leadership of a young Irish immigrant, Kate Mullany, and her colleague, Esther Keegan, in reaction to low wages, 12- to 14-hour workdays and unsafe conditions in the collar factories.
Local writer and director Ruth Henry dramatizes the story in a new musical, “Don’t Iron While the Strike is Hot.”
The play, which debuted at the Bush Auditorium in Troy in May 2014, comes at a time when the Supreme Court has struck another blow to unions, ruling last month that certain workers who benefit from collective bargaining don’t have to pay union dues. The New York Times criticized the decision, saying it reflected “ominous antipathy toward collective bargaining and workers’ rights.” It’s all the more reason we should learn how the birth of labor union rights made the growth of the America’s middle class possible.
There is also a backstory that led to the recognition of Kate Mullany, that stretches from Troy to Washington.
In the 1970s, five neighboring communities that shared an industrial and labor heritage created what has become the Riverspark State Heritage Area. Its purposes were to interpret and capitalize on the area’s industrial and labor history.
Industry-related structures like the Harmony Mills in Cohoes and homes of the rich on Second Street in Troy were evident, but workers did not leave much of built legacy. Riverspark hired cultural historians to identify its worker landmarks. Kate Mullany’s home on Eighth Street in Troy and the worker housing at the Harmony Mills were highlighted in their report.
Mullany’s role in the labor movement caught the attention of Paul Cole, former Secretary-Treasurer of New York’s AFL-CIO. He got the state AFL-CIO to recognize the “uniquely rich history of organized labor and working-class culture” in Riverspark calling it “labor’s Williamsburg.” He was a key ally in getting national recognition for Mullany and having her home designated, protected and restored as a National Landmark and a National Historic Sitein the National Park System. He also established the American Labor Studies Center that he manages at the Mullany House, which is being restored and will open it to the public in 2015.
There were roadblocks along the way.
The National Park Service did not have a theme study for labor history.
Theme studies are the vehicle to identify key national sites for inclusion in the National Park System. Former Rep. Mike McNulty, D-Green Island, whose district included Riverspark, and former Rep. Bruce Vento, D-Minnesota, got Congress to adopt a law to have a national labor theme study.
National Park Service historian Harry Butowsky led the theme study that included recommendations that the Harmony Mills and the Mullany House receive landmark designation.
Cole was appointed to the U.S. Secretary of Interior’s advisory committee, one of whose members was dead set against a woman like Mullany without a formal education getting national recognition. The recommendations were held up for three years.
Also ugly were the emails sent to Washington from the National Park Service planning office in Boston, opposing designation of the Mullany House because it was located on a distressed street in Troy.
The Mullany House has been saved and is a National Landmark and a National Historic Site, thanks to Paul Cole, Harry Butowsky, union members who painted the house, state officials who provided necessary funding for restoration of the house, Riverspark, and Hillary Rodham Clinton, who as first lady included the Mullany House on her National Treasures Tour despite the fact the National Park Service did not encourage the visit. The children who lived on the Mullany House street were in awe when they saw the former first lady.
Henry’s musical, according to author Carole Turbin, “shows how labor activism really works.” In this case, it was a young Irish immigrant woman who went on to lead efforts to improve collar worker’s conditions for six years and was named assistant secretary of the National Labor Union. Cole calls Mullany “one of early American labor history’s most important women.”
The Mullany story is a good example of how heritage areas can be a catalyst for engaging the community to bring an unrecognized chapter of our history alive.
Photo: First Lady HIllary Clinton presenting the Kate Mullany House with a National Historic Landmark plaque, with Josephine Sano, member of the Albany Central Labor Council (National Archives Photo).
A version of this essay was published by the Albany Times Union.