On November 22, 1909, young Clara Lemlich sat beside other garment workers, listening to speeches in the Great Hall of New York’s Cooper Union. Her body was bruised and aching after the beating she’d taken two days earlier on the picket line. In late September, she and 100 other women had walked out of their factory on the Lower East Side. They’d had enough.
Working conditions at the garment shops were deplorable. The women and girls, some as young as eight, worked from 7:30 in the morning to 6:30 or later each evening, sewing “waists,” women’s blouses. Very few took home more that $6 a week after a full seven days of work. Most were Jewish or Italian immigrants who provided for their families and sent what they could to relatives in Europe. Out of their low wages, they paid work expenses and fines.
The shops were stifling in summer and freezing in winter. There was rarely any ventilation or clean water. Most of the shops were fire traps, something that wouldn’t be taken seriously by management until the Triangle Waist Company fire in March, 1911.
SHE HAD FIRE IN HER MOUTH
On November 22, Clara (photo), already arrested numerous times and still in pain from her most recent beating, was determined to attend this meeting — but what a disappointment! Two hours of long-winded speeches and cautious rhetoric was more than enough. The men droned on and on. Couldn’t they feel the tension in the room? the readiness? the ache for action?
On impulse, Clara stood and interrupted a speech, calling out, “I’ve got something to say!” Years later, she would recall, “Ah — then I had fire in my mouth … Audacity — that was all I had — audacity!”
The moderator, as surprised as everyone, decided that the young striker had as much right to the platform as he did. He granted her request. As Lemlich made her way to the podium, several thousand people strained to see the one they called “a pint of trouble for the bosses.”
“I am a working girl,” she called out, “one of those who are on strike against intolerable conditions.” The workers knew what she was talking about. “I offer a resolution that a general strike be declared — now!”
The mass of workers rose to their feet as one body, shouting, waving their hats and handkerchiefs for a good five minutes. When at last the crowd settled down, the moderator asked if anyone wanted to second Clara’s resolution. Again, the room erupted with people on their feet, shouting. Everyone in the Great Hall seconded the motion. Then, Clara led them all in the Yiddish oath: “If I turn traitor to the cause I now pledge, may this hand wither from the arm I now raise!”
“WE ROSE AND WON WITH WOMEN’S MIGHT!”
Messengers ran with the news to where other garment workers were meeting. They, too, endorsed the call for a general strike. Over the next two days, women from over 500 shops walked out in the first great strike of women.
Out on the picket lines, the women were cold in their thin coats and over-sized hats, hungry, and subjected to public humiliation and arrest. The bosses hired thugs to beat them up. One reporter for the New York Sun described the scene:
The girls, headed by teenage Clara Lemlich … began singing Italian and Russian working-class songs as they paced in twos before the factory door. Of a sudden, around the corner came a dozen tough-looking customers, for whom the union label “gorillas” seemed well-chosen.
“Stand fast, girls,” called Clara, and then the thugs rushed the line, knocking Clara to her knees, striking at the pickets, opening the way for a group of frightened scabs to slip through the broken line.
As is often the case with violent tactics, the employers’ brutality backfired and, instead of frightening the picketers away, strengthened their resolve and won support for the strike by heightening public sympathy for the workers.
The strike lasted four months. The “Uprising of the 20,000” left the majority of those who’d gone on strike with improved conditions, a shorter work week, union representation, and better pay. Hard-working women had tasted worker solidarity, union organizing, and the power inherent in nonviolent collective action.
Later, they sang a song written by members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union:
In the black of the winter of nineteen nine,
When we froze and bled on the picket line,
We showed the world that women could fight
And we rose and won with women’s might.
TO GO DEEPER
Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel, Balzer & Bray, 2013 — A picture book for children.
Rivington Street (a novel) by Meredith Tax, University of Illinois Press, 2001. Originally published in 1982, Rivington Street paints a vivid picture of the Lower East side and the women garment workers and other East European Jewish immigrants who lived and worked there at the turn of the last century. This review includes an audio clip of Tax reading a few pages of her fictionalized account of the beginning of the Shirtwaist Strike.
We Were There: The Story of Working Women in America by Barbara Mayer Wertheimer, New York: Pantheon Books, 1977.
Labor Arts presents the Clara Lemlich Social Activist Awards (website)
“Cooper Union” Zachary Aarons tells the story of Clara Lemlich’s famous speech (2 minutes)