The International Ladies Garment Worker's Union Strike

The 1909 ILGWU strike established a precedent for serious collective action in other branches of the garment economy.

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The following article serves as an introduction to the roles that Jewish women played in the American labor movement. It is reprinted with permission from A History of the Jews in America, published by Knopf.

It was a devouring inferno. Employees labored sixty‑five hours a week. At the height of the season they worked seventy‑five hours, andsometimes until dawn. Not infrequently they were obliged to provide their own needles, thread, knives, irons, occasionally their own sewing machines. Within the factory's premises, too, a sinister "internal" sub‑contracting system functioned, obliging employees in effect to work for their foremen on a piecework basis.

The ordeal was even more intense for women, for they were paid less than men for equivalent work. They too were charged for their equipment, their clothes lockers, their very chairs, and were fined for even the briefest tardiness, for damage to a garment. At the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, women were obliged to leave the plant to reach outside toilets. As a precaution against "interruption of work," the steel door leading outside to the facilities was locked. Employees required the foreman's permission to have it opened.

By the early 1900s, as it happened, many of these women were recent Bundists [the Bund was the General Jewish Worker’s Union in Russia and Poland]. Indeed, in Russia they had made up a third of the Bund's membership. Like their male counterparts, they did not abandon their militance in the United States. Nor was their activism limited to the workplace. It encompassed also the women's‑suffrage movement. In New York, Jewish women garment workers represented the very core of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

One of those workers, Rose Schneiderman, was a leader of the city's Women's Suffrage Party. The Polish‑born Schneiderman had been brought to the United States as a youngster. After four years of schooling she had gone to work in a cap factory, to support her widowed mother and younger brothers and sisters. Eventually she doubled as an ILGWU organizer and as an officer of the New York branch of the Women's Trade Union League. A fiery redhead, Schneiderman proved so captivating a speaker in behalf of workers' and women's rights that, many years later, in the 1930s, she became secretary of the New York State Department of Labor.

Meanwhile, within the trade‑union movement, other women played decisive roles: Fannie Cohn, a veteran of the Bund, and the ILGWU's only woman vice‑president; Bessie Abramowitz , a spunky twenty‑year‑old in 1910 when she helped organize the Chicago strike of thirty‑three thousand men's‑clothing workers; Pauline Newman, the first women’s organizer of the historic shirtwaist industry strike. They were a remarkable breed. They were also the pioneers of the garment industry's "Great Revolt" of 1909‑1914.

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Howard Sachar

Howard M. Sachar is the author of numerous books, including A History of Israel, A History of the Jews in America, Farewell Espana, Israel and Europe, and A History of Jews in the Modern World. He is also the editor of the 39-volume The Rise of Israel: A Documentary History. He serves as Professor of Modern History at George Washington University.