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Theater Production Tells Story of Birth of First Women’s Labor Union

By Paul M. Bray, Special Advisor to the Riverspark Heritage Area Commission

File:Kate Mullany House Marker 30May2008.jpg
Kate Mullany House, National Historic Landmark designation. Photo: NPS

At a time when labor unions are under siege, the story of the birth of the labor movement reveals how unions made the growth of the America’s middle class possible.

Early chapters of the story include the establishment of the nation’s first bona fide all-female union took place in Troy 150 years ago’. This occurred under the leadership of a young Irish immigrant Kate Mullany and her colleague Esther Keegan who reacted to the low wages, long hours of 12 to 14 hours a day and unsafe conditions in the collar factories. Local writer and director Ruth Harvey dramatized the story in a new musical Don’t Iron While the Strike is Hot! Hundreds of people recently saw the musical at the Bush Auditorium at Russell Sage in Troy.

Speaking about Mullany, Henry said “I love the idea of a real person who was like a super hero. She had no particular talents but she had heart. She is a great role model…for young people today.” Kate was in her early 20s when her father died leaving her family without money. She went to work in a collar and cuff factory to support her mother and siblings and it was not long before she stepped out of the factory and onto the streets to make public the conditions of the collar workplace.

She ultimately led a week long strike in 1864 that gained collar workers a 25% increase in their wages. After the strike, Kate’s mother purchased land on Eighth Street in Troy and built a brick duplex with three units on each side of this row house that is today a National Landmark and is also listed on the New York State Women’s Heritage Trail.

There is a long story of good and ugly deeds that led to the recognition of Kate Mullany. It all came back to me as I watched the musical.
In the 1970s, five neighboring communities that shared a location on the Hudson River and an industrial heritage created at the municipal level what has become the Riverspark Heritage Area, the first of 20 New York state heritage areas. Its purposes are to interpret and promote the area’s industrial and labor history.

Kate Mullany House
View of the Kate Mullany House in Troy. Credit: NPS

The structures like the Harmony Mills in Cohoes and homes of the rich on 2nd Street in Troy were evident, but workers did not leave much of built legacy. The Riverspark commission hired cultural historians to identify its worker landmarks. Kate Mullany’s home on 8th Street in Troy, the worker housing at the Harmony Mills and Druids Hall were highlighted in the resulting report.

Mullany’s role in the labor movement caught the attention of now retired Secretary-Treasurer of New York’s AFL-CIO Paul Cole who carried the ball. 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 protected, restored and designated as both a National Landmark and a National Historic Site in the National Park System. He also established the American Labor Studies Center that he manages at the Mullany House as the House is being fully restored to be able to open it to the public in 2015. There were many road blocks 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 and as National Historic Landmarks. Thanks to former Congressmen Mike McNulty whose district included Riverspark, former Congressman Bruce Vento from Minnesota and New York State’s former Senator Patrick Moynihan, Congress adopted a law calling for 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.
There was also significant opposition to the effort. Some people were ideologically opposed to unions, while others did not believe the achievements of a female labor organizer with little formal education worth recognizing and preserving. Another group expressed concerns about the contemporary setting of the Mullany House, which was located in a distressed section of Troy.

Thanks to Paul Cole, Harry Butowsky, union members who painted the House, advocacy from the Riverspark Heritage Area, state officials who provided necessary funding for restoration of the House and others like Hillary Clinton, who as First Lady included the Mullany House on her National Treasures Tour, despite the fact that the National Park Service did not encourage the visit, the Mullany House has been saved, is a National Landmark and is a National Historic Site in the National Park System.

When the First Lady made her visit to dedicate the Landmark plaque for the Mullany House, it was wonderful to see the awe in the faces of the street kids at seeing the First Lady on the Mullany Street.

Courtesy: Kate Mullany National Historic Site
Scene from Don’t Iron while the Strike is Hot!, a musical on the life of Kate Mullany. Photo: Kate Mullany National Historic Site

Harvey’s musical according to author Carole Turbin, “shows how labor activism really works”. In this case led by 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. Paul Cole calls her “one of early American labor history’s most important women.” Paul also said, “Given the fact that a majority of Americans say they know nothing or little about unions, this musical about a group of courageous Irish immigrants is a wonderful way for students, teachers and others to witness why workers need an organized voice in the workplace to improve their wages and working conditions. It is as true today as it was in 1864.

Copies of the Mullany script and a music CD can be purchased by contacting author Ruth Henry at henryr@nycap.rr.com. Educational resources on Mullany can be found at www.katemullanynhs.org.
The contemporary Mullany story is a good example of how heritage areas can be the catalyst for engaging communities and our political leaders to bring an unrecognized chapter of our history alive.