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The Militant, 19 May 1945

Evelyn Atwood

Skyscraper Scrubwomen
Fight Vile Conditions

From The Militant, Vol. IX No. 20, 19 May 1945, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Everybody knows about the 102 story Empire State Building, tallest and showiest in the world. Tourists visit it. A wealthy corporation owns it. The rich occupy it. But who knows anything about the cleaning women who toil and sweat throughout the nights to keep its swanky offices clean and shiny?

“They don’t care nothing about us poor scrub women,” said one of them to me when I interviewed a group of them on May 11, at the offices of their local union 32-j, AFL Building Service Employees, at 250 West 57th Street, New York City. “We asked for only a nickel an hour raise, and the War Labor Board turned it down – after giving us the runaround for months!”

The women were tense and fighting mad. Last week, they said, they demanded a strike. But they were prevailed upon to wait another ten days pending further negotiations.

Her black eyes flashing, one of the women told me about their working conditions and pay.

“We get 55 cents an hour straight time for seven hours and 96 cents with overtime. All of us work twelve hours because we just couldn’t live without overtime. All of us have kids – some as many as six or eight and you can’t feed them on $19 a week.”

Conditions of Work

The women are ruthlessly speeded up in the overtime work. “We have to cover about 11,000 square feet of space in our regular time,” they told me. “Then we have to clean and scrub the same amount of space in the five hours of overtime,” One of the women added indignantly: “And don’t think we can leave unless all the space is finished – even if we have to finish it on our own time!”

The work is dirty and physically exhausting. In addition to lugging around their big, heavy mops and brooms, the women explained: “We have to pull two heavy water tanks on wheels down halls that are each a block long, and we have to lug them from floor to floor.” These tanks weigh hundreds of pounds and “are so heavy they are enough to pull your insides out.” In fact, they said, many women are ruptured and others develop permanent internal disorders.

The women mop, dust, polish and clean the offices, the toilets, the kitchens which have swanky dining rooms on some of the floors. They empty thousands of ash trays, hundreds of trash baskets, into huge sacks. The sacks when full are almost five feet high and half as big around. Each sack weighs at least 125 pounds. “One of us had to lug twenty-five of those sacks to the freight elevator, one day. She got so sick she never could come back.”

On Fridays and Saturdays, they said, they must clean the carpets thoroughly, “We use a big hose – something like the hose firemen use. It weighs at least 150 pounds. One of the older women recalled: “Once I got sick for two weeks, after the hosing. I just couldn’t move myself out of bed.” Another woman remarked: “You should see the sweat roll down us – just like we were horses. And some of us get fever and sickness from going out all covered with sweat.”

Swanky Offices

I inquired what kind of offices they worked in and who owned them. One of the women works in the offices of the duPont Company which has several floors in the building. “It’s full of fancy furniture and expensive rugs from one end to the other.” On Christmas, she said, duPont used to give the cleaning women $5. Last year they cut it to $2.50. (duPont’s net profits for 1944 were only $80,870,106).

Another woman works in the Schenley Distilling Company offices.

“On the 37th floor they have the swellest restaurant and bar where they throw big, expensive parties. Us cleaning women have to clean up their mess after these big parties,” she raged. The big-shots leave crumbled crackers and food all over the place and on the carpets. And we’re the ones that have to pick up all the empty bottles, put them in cases and drag them out – case after case of empties.

“And you know, Schenley’s won’t even give a scrub woman a sandwich or a glass of ginger ale! We find all the left-over food thrown away in the garbage next day. Then we have to cart it out.”

Deeply incensed, she added: “The place has to be cleaned up good too. If they find a speck of dust, we’re reported to the office the next day.”

One of the women reported that she worked in the B.F. Goodrich suite of offices, which also occupies a whole floor. “It looks like a multi-millionaire’s place. Maroon rugs and white kid furniture. It’s no fun to clean all the finger marks and spots off that white furniture and white wood-work too.” A moment later she remembered: “They didn’t leave anything at all for me for Christmas.”

OPA Floors

The worst “space” in the building, they all agreed, is the OPA offices on the third and fourth floors. “For one thing you have to cover about 20,000 square feet of space,” they said. The floors are unwaxed and must be scrubbed every day. The confusion, filth and mountains of trash make work on these floors “a nightmare” for the women.

As a consequence, the overseer, who goes around on surprise visits to catch women who might be taking a moment’s rest, uses the OPA floors as a club over their heads.. “If I see you loafing, I’ll send you down to Three and Four,” he threatens them. And many times he does send them down. “A little, skinny woman,” they told me, “almost killed herself before they took her off that floor. She had six children to take care of too.”

Just before I left, one of the women pointed with disdain to a “sympathetic” piece in a capitalist paper.

“We don’t want sympathy,” she said. “We aren’t crippled and we’re ready to work. But we want our rights. We want the five cents an hour raise that’s coming to us. And if we have to strike to get it, the elevator boys and porters are going out with us.”

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