Archive for March, 2020

A Vancouver steam laundry girl’s story about the Spanish Flu

March 18, 2020

by Janet Mary Nicol

Ellen Goode was among 300 employees in Vancouver – most female – on strike against steam laundry employers.  The dispute started in September, 1918 and lasted four months, with unions achieved in two of the seven workplaces.   Ellen talked about her experiences in a taped interview years later.  She  recalled laundry owners blamed striking employees when the Spanish flu began spreading in Vancouver in October 1918, finally dissipating in the New Year and leaving nine hundred residents dead, four strikers at IXL Laundry among them.

Ellen recounted:

“A full-page advertisement came out in the papers that the flu epidemic was not easing up owing to the laundry workers being on strike with dirty linen. So the union ran an ad stating that we would man any laundry, free of wages, twenty-four hours a day for people with the flu in their home – which we received no response for. We wanted to man the general hospital which was working ten hours a day. But there was no response to it.”

Ellen also said: “You’d get on the streetcar and people, they’d say – they’d know you were a picketer because they’d see you get on the corner and they’d say, ‘No wonder so many people are dying when the laundry girls are out and refuse to work, you know.’ But that’s what they [the employer] did with us. But it didn’t work.”  She continued: “I did have that paper for years until it began to crumble and I had to throw it away. I kept it as a souvenir.”

***

Note: The BC Federationist, the labour newspaper of the day, published the names of the four members of the Laundry Workers Union who died. Mountain View cemetery records indicate date of death and age. The four workers were: Miss Josephine Tielens, aged 19, died 2 November; Miss Margaret Roxburgh, aged 19, died 25 October; George Baker, aged 34, died 31 October. Nick Pervie is not listed in the cemetery records.

This abridged excerpt is from “Girl Strikers and the 1918 Vancouver Steam Laundries Dispute” in BC Studies, Fall 2019

Free access to the full article (as of March, 2020) is available on line at
https://ojs.library.ubc.ca/index.php/bcstudies/article/view/190428/188946