Alice Lord sparked organization of the Seattle Waitresses Union, Local 240 (now Dining Employees Local #2) in March 1900, and orchestrated the union’s successful campaigns to promote landmark minimum wage and hour laws for working women. While helping organize other groups of women workers, she was active in the Seattle Central Labor Council and the Washington State Federation of Labor.
Lord was 23 years old when she came to Seattle shortly before the turn of the century. As a waitress in the gold rush boom town, she experienced appalling working conditions. She and other women in the trade realized that as individuals they were powerless to bring about change. They decided to organize. They quickly won support from leaders of the Western Central Labor Council and the Washington State Federation of Labor. With 65 founding members, the Waitresses Union was one of the earliest women’s unions to be chartered by the American Federation of Labor.
"The Red-Hottest Unionists"
Organized labor’s official organ, the Seattle Union Record introduced the new union on March 27, 1900, proclaiming that the waitresses “will have behind them the united support of organized labor in any just request or demand they make of their employer.” In May, the editors praised the waitresses for being “the red-hottest unionists in Seattle” and dubbed them “pioneers of their sex.”
On February 16, 1901, the Union Record reminded readers that “When the Waitresses’ Union was organized in this city, there were small-minded people who looked upon it as something of a joke. …[The waitresses] have shown that women can maintain a union as successfully as men.” The “small-minded people,” in fact, echoed the prevailing stance of national labor policy, namely that women were incapable of organizing or of pursuing the cause of unionism.
Thanks to Organization ...
In their own column in the October 25, 1902 Union Record, the waitresses reported that their membership had doubled during its first year. They summarized their impressive progress:
"Before organizing the girls were compelled to work all the way from ten to fifteen hours per day for from $3 to $6 per week, but now thanks to organization, we are never called upon to work more than ten hours and receive in compensation thereof $8.50 to $10 per week."
Waitresses Local 240 had a triple agenda: to improve the status of working women, to promote the rights of the working class as a whole, and to win suffrage for women. With help from AFL strategists, the waitresses studied union issues and learned tactics of strikes, negotiations, and lobbying. At first, when their union’s budget was slim, Lord walked from Seattle to the state capital in Olympia to promote their causes.
"We Do Not Want Sweatshops"
In 1901, legislators responded by enacting the 10-hour day for working women. Pressing onward for a six-day week, Lord told them, “You give even your horses one day’s rest in seven” (Gottfried). The six-day week did not become state law until 1920, but the waitresses won it years earlier through their union contract. From 1903 to 1911, the union lobbied for the eight-hour day and persuaded club women to support their campaign. On March 4, 1911, legislators passed the “Waitresses’ Bill,” making Washington state one of the first with an eight hour day for working women.
Lord played an important part in the ensuing campaign for a minimum wage law, arguing against opponents, who maintained that working conditions in Washington were already superior to those back East. She wrote in the March 1, 1913 Union Record: “… We do not want sweatshops nor tenement districts. Now is the time to make laws to prevent such conditions, not wait until said conditions exist and then bring about reform.” During the 1913 session, lawmakers enacted a landmark $10 per week minimum wage for women (excluding domestic and agricultural workers).
From the start, the waitresses understood the importance of building coalitions. In 1902, their union moved into its own hall in downtown Seattle. It had a large meeting room, an office, and a comfortable lounge. Since the new Labor Temple was under construction, the Waitresses Union invited the Western Central Labor Council and some of the men’s unions to hold meetings in their hall. The Council in turn elected Lord and her sisters to office.
The Waitresses Union also found support from Seattle’s middle-class club women, many of whom were members of the National Consumer League and supporters of the National Women’s Trade Union League. Club women advocated protective labor legislation, so that working women would have the means and time for educational and cultural enrichment. Echoing their sentiment, Lord described activities in the Waitresses’ Hall in the January 6, 1906 Union Record:
" ... a very pleasant sight it is to see some practicing music, others sewing and a few studious ones with their books endeavoring to obtain knowledge and train their mental talents so they may prove themselves worthy to be called American women."
An Indomitable Spirit
Among her union sisters, Lord was known for her indomitable spirit and love of life. She looked forward to Saturday get-togethers for beer and crab feeds at the Waitresses’ Hall. One of her sisters said, her “determination, enterprise, executive ability and strong sense of fairness have been the backbone of the Union” (Abbott).
At a time when women’s trade unions were new and controversial, other groups of working women were slow to organize. In 1902, Lord helped Everett waitresses and Seattle women garment workers form their own unions. On January 6, 1906, she wrote in the Union Record, “If teachers, clerks, and cashiers would organize, we would not hear so many complaints of poorly paid, tired out, physically disabled women.”
In the mid-1910s, Lord helped organize hotel and domestic maids, and the Seattle Union Card and Label League. Members of the Card and Label League were wives and female relatives of union men, whose objectives were to support the unions. In 1916, the Waitresses Union founded the Union Women’s Federation, which organize candy and cracker makers, phone operators, “lady barbers,” and elevator operators.
Lord served as the Waitresses Union’s business agent and held various offices until 1931, when she resigned to marry. Within two years, she rejoined, and members again elected her president. She held the office until her death from a stroke on March 8, 1940. The Central Labor Council summed up her achievements on behalf of union waitresses, noting that “Working hours have been reduced more than 50 percent while wages have increased more than 300 percent” (Union Record).