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20,000 Women Strike for Worker's Rights

Clara Lemlich: the young woman whose speech sparked the strike.

Early last century, New York City was the center of the country’s clothing industry and Manhattan’s Lower East Side was where workers toiled in dangerous sweatshops producing ready-to-wear clothing. Shirtwaist (women’s blouse) makers were among the lowest paid in the industry. Frustrated by their employers’ neglect of demands for better wages and safer working conditions, women garment workers met at Cooper Union with the male-led Local 25 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU).

Women were already on strike at the Triangle and Leiserson factories and after Samuel Gompers and other men gave uninspiring speeches, Clara Lemlich asked to be heard. Speaking in Yiddish, she declared, “I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in general terms. What we are here for is to decide whether we shall or shall not strike. I offer a resolution that a general strike be declared now.” The crowd roared its approval and the meeting chairman exclaimed, “Do you mean faith? Will you take the old Jewish oath?” Hands flew up and the women declared in Yiddish, “If I turn traitor to the cause I now pledge, may this hand wither from the arm I now raise.”

New York Times, December 4, 1909.

Twenty thousand shirtwaist workers went on strike and, for the first time, upper-class women joined their working-class sisters on the picket line. The strike lasted four cold months from November 1909 into February 1910. When it was over, the women had won a 52-hour workweek, four paid legal holidays, a more regular work schedule, a better pay scale and recognition of their union. They set in motion the organization of garment workers nationwide that would one day culminate in a union of 300,000 workers.

Shirtwaist workers vote for a general strike.




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