March 17, 2016

Campaign for Kate: money, furnishings being sought for Mullany House on eve of induction into labor hall of fame

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT Communications

If you search the cliffs, fields, cities, towns and highlands of Ireland, you'd be hard pressed to find a more stalwart hero of working women than Irish immigrant Kate Mullany.

kate mullany houseHer time of honor will be heralded on May 19, when she is inducted into Labor's International Hall of Fame. But her story began long before 2016 — it started in the cold winter of 1864.

Mullany was one of 3,000 women – almost half of Troy's female industrial workers, most of them Irish – who worked in the collar industry, cleaning the white, detachable collars worn by working men. For 12-14 hours a day, she worked with soap and bleach, boiling and ironing, using caustic cleaners to scour and starch collars. Some of it was just too much for too little: too many health hazards and too little money.

So together, with co-worker Esther Keegan, she formed the first female union in the country, the Collar Laundry Union, in 1864. She led several strikes, worked in solidarity with men's unions, demanded safer working conditions and secured wage increases for the laundry workers.

The strikes were a scary proposition for women working jobs that were in high demand; for women who were immigrants. But Mullany and her peers called for remedy of unsafe working conditions — such as new, scalding starching machines — and a wage increase for the paltry earnings. Though the strike was a fearful undertaking, Mullany was used to working with hot coals – that's how the irons were heated.

This Irish woman will be inducted into Labor's International Hall of Fame on May 19 in historic Troy, Rensselaer County, in her third-floor apartment now full of tools, sawdust and wood as the place is slowly and accurately being restored.

The consul general of Ireland, Barbara Jones, visited the Mullany House – a National Historic Site -- this week during an open house, arriving from the Consulate of Ireland in New York City.

"She is a dynamo and very interested in Kate and wants to be helpful," said Paul Cole, executive director of the American Labor Studies Center. He has devoted several decades to getting the Mullany House and Kate herself acknowledged for their strong place in working women's history.

"It's the only National Historical Site that focuses on working-class history, especially Irish immigrants," said Cole.

This week, Cole announced a campaign to raise $30,000 and solicit mid-19th century working-class furnishings in order to finish the restoration of the three-story brick house where she lived, originally with her mother and siblings.

Already, a well-preserved box of collars has been donated for the site. Furniture and accouterments are being sought.

"She's a true New York state heroine," said Paul Pecorale, NYSUT vice president. "As a National Historic Site, her home is indicative of the importance of the work that Kate stood for and how it resonates as a core value in the American workplace."

Full details of the furnishings campaign and a history of the house itself can be found on the National Historic Site.

The house is on the edge of the Collar City, as Troy is still remembered. Cole sees it as a place to interpret and honor the industrial workers of Troy. Irish contractors Duncan & Cahill, union labor, are working at the site.

"Up to now, there's been no property that helps interpret the life and times of the workers here," said Cole.

The house is included in New York state's Women's Heritage Trail, a site representing working-class women.

To uphold the American Labor Studies Center mission, educational resources are available at www.labor-studies.org for teachers to incorporate labor into lesson plans.

To learn about Mullany's life, visit the National Park Service's site for her biography.