Strike While the Ironing's Still Hot : For moms, working conditions, salary and prospects for advancement can be dismal, despite progress. Don't be afraid to play hardball with management.

Joyce Sunila of Studio City is a regular contributor to The Times

There was the Homestead Strike of 1892. Federal troops were sent in and 18 people were killed.

There was the Haymarket Riot of 1886. Eleven men died in the protest against deplorable working conditions.

Then there were My Mother's Strikes of 1954, 1955, 1956 and 1957. Mom marched up to her bedroom and stayed in bed for three days. We had to fend for ourselves.

"I'm on strike!" she'd yell whenever we were hungry or needed our band uniforms.

"What are you striking for?" we'd have asked if we'd any idea what a strike was.

"A decent 12-hour working day. The right to take a shower without worrying about the scum between the tiles."

In the pre-feminist Dark Ages, such strikes were probably common. Friends of mine keep coming up with childhood memories of Mom in the bedroom "on strike."

"My mother would go upstairs and close her bedroom door and just refuse to come out," a friend told me over coffee the other day. "My dad would go in there, and there'd be yelling. It scared me. I'd go back and forth between them, trying to make peace."

This friend and I brought our stories to a women's dinner and found compatriots: "Me too! My mother used to declare strikes after all the holidays!"

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These protests my friends and I witnessed weren't really strikes at all but small nervous breakdowns. And why not? Look at our mothers' working conditions.

Their job performance was constantly under review by people with a grade-school education or less.

They could be critiquing the Second Law of Thermodynamics and have to break off to fetch a roll of toilet paper.

Their "salaries" evaporated whenever kids needed expensive new sports equipment or cool new outfits.

They were plain overworked, slaving over meals and housework.

Three days up in her bedroom? What our mothers needed was a month in the country, a testimonial dinner and a trophy.

And when the three days were up, it was back to the same old grind. It would be nearly two decades after our Mothers Strikes of the 1950s before women would make housework a political issue. In the General Strike of 1972, women got plain about it: "We hate housework!" "Out of the kitchens and into the boardrooms!"

Here we are 20 years later. Women are putting in full workdays (and not in the boardrooms), and studies show working mothers doing 90% of the housework. But now they do it at night and on weekends.

My mother's strikes were futile in terms of winning a shorter, gentler workday. But some mothers went on strike and made real gains against management.

I remember when Aunt Pearl disappeared. After stranding Uncle Bob with the kids for three days (a casual survey indicates three days as the standard duration of a mother's strike), she called from a hotel in Connecticut, where she read off a list of demands. They were met.

Most women don't have Aunt Pearl's chutzpah. Self-effacing moms tend not to be hardball bargainers. As guardian of the household budget they identify too strongly with management: "Three nights at a fancy hotel? When Tracy needs Rollerblades and Matt's dying for a Sega CD player?"

Women need to practice preserving a stronghold of ego against the pull of domestic and custodial responsibility. My husband remembers his mother locking herself in the bathroom to study her textbooks when, in her forties, she decided to become a teacher. Her kids kept demanding band uniforms and snacks. She kept studying. They yelled louder. She kept studying.

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She finally passed her exams, got her teaching certificate and hired somebody else to iron the uniforms and make the snacks.

Now that we've admitted the General Strike of 1972 was a washout, it's time to get real. Individual mother's strikes are in again. So let's learn from the examples set two generations ago:

1. When striking, always go to a hotel. Beds are for sick people.

2. Have a plan. Make a list of demands. Going into a three-day snit doesn't get you anywhere.

3. Don't fight with your husband. That just traumatizes the next generation of strikers.

4. Forget perfectionism. Wrinkled band uniforms are a small price to pay for a decent life.

Above all, remember those who struck before you. Be strong! Someday one of us will reach the mountaintop, look down the other side, and tell us how women juggle it all in the Promised Land.

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