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On this day: the biggest women’s strike ever

On this day, 23 November 1909, began a strike known as the Uprising of the 20,000. Over 20,000 Yiddish-speaking immigrants, mostly young women in their teens and twenties, launched a strike in New York’s garment industry.

The strike lasted 11 weeks and remains the largest known strike by women in history. The morning after the decision to strike, 15,000 shirtwaist (women’s blouse) workers began picketing. Later that day, there were more than 20,000 strikers, with men joining the strike as well — completely shutting down the industry.

Clara Lemlich, at 23 years old, was a leader of the Uprising. Born in the predominantly Yiddish-speaking village of Horodok in what is now the Ukraine, close to the Morovian border, she was a member of the executive committee of fledgling Local 25 of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, which had been founded nine years earlier and grown rapidly. It was a union with a conservative largely male leadership, but a largely female and often radical or socialist membership.

Lemlich, who by then had become a committed socialist, grew tired of the foot-dragging and openly sexist discrimination of union leaders and took to the floor the night of November 22 to deliver a now legendary Yiddish speech, concluding:

I am a working girl, one of those who are on strike against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in general terms… I offer a resolution that an all-out strike be declared — now! If I turn traitor to the cause I now pledge: may this hand wither from the arm I now raise.

The women of the shirtwaist sweatshops shared grievances regarding their low wages, long work hours, workplace safety, and the indignities of unwanted sexual advances by bosses. When she finished speaking, the crowd pledged overwhelming support for the strike.

It lasted for fourteen weeks, and involved considerable violence. Police routinely arrested picketers for trivial or imaginary offenses while employers hired local thugs to beat them as police looked the other way – Lemlich herself had several ribs broken.

The union accepted an arbitrated settlement in February 1910 that improved workers’ wages, working conditions, and hours, but did not provide union recognition. It also enforced safety standards: regulations about fire safety, fire drills, and handling of scraps. However, a number of companies, including the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory where the strike was originally prompted, refused to sign the agreement. But even so, the strike won a number of important gains. It encouraged workers in the industry to take action to improve their conditions, brought public attention to the sweatshop conditions.

A year later, there was a horrific fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in which 146 workers died including Lemlich’s own cousin. Over 100,000 attended the funerals and the incident radicalised many more people in the area about health and safety conditions in the garment industry.

Clara Lemlich was active in the women’s suffrage movement, in trade union organisation or in the Communist Party throughout her life, recruiting workers to the union in the care home in which she died in 1982.

A history of the Uprising of the 20,000, Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909, is due to be published in the near future. (Hat-tip for this piece, Michael Dorfman & Yiddishkayt)

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