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  • Writer's pictureTedd Long

Mr. Reliable?


Imagine it's early November 1908. You are a member of the Toledo Laundry Workers union, the first laundry workers union organized in the United States. For the last year, you've worked harder than you ever thought possible laundering clothing and linens—a physically demanding and time-consuming job without the modern conveniences we have today. Each morning, you wake up before dawn, hop on a streetcar, and head to Reliable Laundry at Monroe and 10th Streets. Depending on where your supervisor places you, you spend each day sorting, pre-treating, hand washing, boiling, rinsing, hanging, drying, ironing, folding, storing, and, if needed, mending the clothes and linens of faceless people you do not know and will never meet. All for $3.00 per week.


While some may look down their noses at washerwomen back in your day, you and your colleagues feel pride in your work, knowing how important it is in maintaining public hygiene. Besides, your job helps pay your family’s bills, and your union is working hard to increase your pay to a living wage.


Early in the week, the Reliable plant is awash in rumors that the owner, Adolph Wunderlich, a man who started as a laundry driver and quickly grew his business four years ago when he volunteered to run a union plant during a city-wide laundry strike, was now going back on his word. According to the laundry's rumor mill, Wunderlich planned to break his union contract as part of an opening salvo in a war on unions led by members of the local Citizens' Industrial Association or CIA, an anti-labor group working to "keep Toledo cheap" by organizing employers to forestall the spread of unionism.


On Friday morning, November 6th, you discover the news is true. Mr. Wunderlich announced he would break his union agreement and, beginning Monday, he would operate an "open shop." The next day, you and 27 other women join two men to begin a strike against Reliable Laundry and Dry Cleaning.


Later that week, according to the November 11th, 1908 Toledo News-Bee, Thomas Rumsey, a local labor Business Agent, spoke at a meeting held at the Central Labor Union Hall and described how Wunderlich's move to cancel the union contract was viewed as an act of treacherous betrayal.

"No businessman in Toledo ever started in business with the prestige this man had, and now, after four years, he repudiates the union, cuts wages, says the union has never done him any good, violates a contract that does not expire until next May, and tells the girls that he is running his own business. He never made the yearly dividend and never lived up to his contract."

Of course, you and many of your striking colleagues attended this meeting. Some of the women who have worked for Wunderlich longer than you confirmed Rumsey’s comments. They also shared some of Adolph Wunderlich’s backstory. From what they had heard, he didn’t grow up in Toledo—he was born in Detroit, but his family moved every few years all over the Midwest as his father was an iterant Methodist minister. In fact, his father started the Methodist church in Germany, and the family was banished for his religious devotion. Wunderlich arrived in Toledo as an early teenager when his father took on the Emmanuel Methodist Episcopal Church on the northeast corner of Walnut and Ontario Streets. After graduating from high school in Lafayette, Indiana, he attended Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, which his father had helped found. After graduating from Baldwin-Wallace, Adolph tried medical school but returned to Toledo in the late 1890s, where he had no solid prospects for a career—let alone a decent-paying job.


After observing how the laundry business was booming to keep up with the Glass City’s exploding population, Wunderlich purchased a horse and wagon to start his own laundry pickup and delivery business. Over time, he built a good route and created contacts with the major laundry businesses. When a city-wide laundry strike hit in 1904, he approached the Laundry Workers Union with an attractive offer. He told them he knew where he could pick up some used machines and start a union-only business if they provided the financial backing he needed. He claimed he'd run the business "as Sam Jones would conduct it" in reference to the recently deceased and progressive mayor of Toledo, Samuel "Golden Rule" Jones. He also committed to paying an annual dividend back to the union as payment for their support. You know the rest of the story.


A 1905 photo of employees of the S.M. Jones Company. Toledo Mayor Samuel Milton Jones believed in paying his employees a living wage along with paid vacations, child care, and subsidized meals in the cafeteria.

As the first few days of the strike played out, you and your fellow workers were nervous about how things would end, but you were confident you did the right thing to challenge Wunderlich's betrayal. To your benefit, without modern washing machines and dryers, a local laundry strike was a significant inconvenience—one the public could not ignore. Customers had to quickly decide whether to let scabs do their laundry or take their business to a union shop. In your case, most of Wunderlich's customers shifted their business to other laundries. As a result, within a few days of the strike announcement, things got rough for Adolph Wunderlich and the Reliable Laundry. The two union workers who stayed on, despite the strike, were not his best employees, and the non-union girls he quickly hired could not keep up—even with smaller loads of laundry resulting from customers going elsewhere. By Saturday, November 14th, Wunderlich called in the union representatives and agreed to honor his contract. He also agreed to rehire all the strikers and, as the coup de grâce, he agreed that the two union members that stayed in the plant and the non-union workers he hired would have to apply for membership to the Laundry Workers Union if they wanted a chance to stay on.


Mr. Wunderlich went so far as to admit, "I was the goat; I know better now," in an interview with Beatrice Vaughan of the News-Bee. He went on to say,

"I want to do the right thing—I got in bad, that's all. I'll make my laundry the best there will be in town for union laundry girls…"

The disruption the strike delivered to his business was significant enough to cause Wunderlich to pin a badge on his lapel supporting a living wage for women when he attended the strike settlement celebration at the Central Labor Union Hall on Monday, November 16th.

“I hope now to recover what I have lost," Wunderlich was quoted in the News-Bee. "I built up a good business by conducting a union plant and through the effort of these girls, and I am sorry that this trouble came." He added, "I made a mistake but shall not make the same one again."

Just imagine. You and your coworkers held fast to your demands, and within a week, your boss was seen wearing a pin demanding a living wage for women and apologizing for what he did. What a victory! Or was it?


A 1914 Toledo Club book featured a caricature of Adolph Wunderlich and other prominent Toledo men.
Stove Mounters’ & Range Workers’ Journal. “Attempts to Bribe Union Official.” Volumes 19-20 (January 1915): 23.

Now imagine it is six years later, and Adolph Wunderlich is at it again. Thanks in part to the hard work of union workers, Reliable Laundry and Dry Cleaning is one of the city's most prominent cleaners, having just celebrated its tenth anniversary. But once again, Mr. Wunderlich decides he doesn't need union employees. This time, Adolph tried to destroy the Laundry Workers Union with a bribe after the workers, backed by the Central Union, sought to raise the minimum wage for girls from $6.50 to $8 per week. To provide some context, in 1914, the average railroad worker brought home $13.23 per week, and the average factory worker brought home $11.15 per week.


Wunderlich invited James F. Brock of the International Laundry Workers Union to meet him for lunch at the Grand Hotel (a non-union establishment). After the exchange of pleasantries, Brock was offered $1,000 to disband the local laundry union. But Brock was sly enough to refuse the bribe as it was covertly slid across the table. Instead, he demanded the money be placed in his pocket after stepping outside the hotel, where only he knew witnesses would be waiting to confirm where the money came from. The next day, newspapers carried stories about the bribe and primed the public for a special meeting at Central Union Hall where Brock would expose Wunderlich.


A 1910 CIA advertisement implored citizens to ignore a boycott of the non-union Grand Hotel, the site of Wunderlich's bribe to James F. Brock of the International Laundry Workers Union.

Once again, Adolph Wunderlich had shown his true colors. This time, he did his best to explain away his actions, but this time, he refused to apologize or give in to demands that he raise your minimum wage. When you and your coworkers decided to strike to help bring him to the negotiation table, he hired new employees and refused to recognize the union. It was clear he intended to wait you out.


The union leaflet sent to Reliable Cleaners customers to counter letters sent by Wunderlich proclaiming his workers were satisfied and well-paid. (From Mark Snyder's private collection)

Meanwhile, your union developed a printed circular and distributed it to all of Wunderlich's customers. But unlike the first time, his customers continued to send their laundry to Reliable Cleaners. Wunderlich's strategy worked. Six months into the strike, police began arresting picketers in front of Reliable Cleaners for breaking noise ordinances. Before long, the public had forgotten the strike and moved on. The kicker for you and your coworkers came when Adolph launched the Reliable Laundry & Dry Cleaning Mutual Benefit Association to promote "cooperation between employer and employees." Soon, Adolph was hosting a picnic and dance for his new employees, some of whom set up a Reliable Booster club. After months of picketing, you move on to another job at a unionized laundry in the South End. Meanwhile, you are furious when you read about Reliable's workers enjoying a free night at Keith's Theatre, all on Adolph. What a guy!


Over time, you moved on and enjoyed a long career in the laundry business, working for a smaller union laundry closer to your home. Ultimately, you are proud of your work and cherish the long-term friendships you made through your association with the Laundry Workers Union. Having left school after the fifth grade, you learned so much working in one of the few occupations open to married women and widows—your mentors and confidantes. You worked hard for your earnings—they meant the difference between making ends meet and destitution since your husband's seasonal income was so inconsistent.


In 1939, you open the paper to find out Adolph has sold Reliable and is retiring so he can travel the world. You can't help but cast your gaze back to those two moments of betrayal by your boss. The memories of those difficult times still lingered, etched into the tapestry of your life. But as you look back, you realize that those moments did not define you; they strengthened you. With a sense of resilience and determination, you not only survived but thrived, rising above the challenges that threatened to break your spirit. You left behind the stains of betrayal in the past, and in their place, you weaved a new story of triumph and self-discovery. In the end, you had not just washed clothes; you cleansed your soul, emerging from the trials of your career as a testament to the indomitable human spirit—despite the treachery of Mr. Reliable.

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