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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In the shirtwaist factories, Jewish women com­prised 70 percent of thelabor force. Characteristically, they focused their hopes less on improved working conditions than on marriage and escape from the factory altogether. Yet it was precisely these "docile" females who became a disciplined army in the labor uprising.

The largest of the shirtwaist factories belonged to the Triangle and Leiserson companies, both German‑Jewish. Earlier attempts to union­ize the two firms had failed. Then, in September 1909, workers at the Triangle plant voted to bypass the company‑sponsored "benevolent association" in favor of the United Hebrew Trades, the consciousness­-raising organizers of Jewish‑staffed industry. Hereupon, Triangle's management fired the "troublemakers" and advertised for replace­ments. In turn, Local 25 of the ILGWU called for a strike.

The factory employed nearly a thousand workers. All responded to the strike appeal. They soon paid a bitter price. As the young women marched on the picket line, they were taunted, threatened, jostled by company goons. Others were arrested, ostensibly for malingering, vagrancy, incitement. Five weeks of this pressure, of hunger and physical weakness, took their toll. The women's morale flagged.

In November, the ILGWU leadership convened an emergency meeting of shirtwaist workers. Three thousand women crowded into the Cooper Union auditorium. There they were addressed by the Lower East Side's working‑class heroes-‑Meyer London, Morris Hillquit, Joseph Barondess, Samuel Gompers. All appealed for labor unity, for finan­cial and "moral" support. Yet the mood remained uncertain, for the leaders stopped short of demanding a sympathy strike of employees from other factories. Here it was that a nineteen‑year‑old worker, Clara Lemlich, rose to speak. In impassioned Yiddish, the young woman described the pain and humiliation of factory labor:

[The bosses] yell at the girls and "call them down" even worse than I imagine the Negro slaves were in the South. There are no dressing rooms for the girls in the shops, no place to hang a hat where it will not be spoiled by the end of the day. We're human, all of us girls, and we're young. We like new hats as well as any other young women. Why shouldn't we? And if one of us gets a new one, even if it hasn't cost more than 50 cents, that means that we have gone for weeks on two‑cent lunches‑-dry cake and nothing else.

Continuing in this vein, working herself into a fury of denunciation, Clara Lemlich then appealed for united action against not only the Triangle Company but all shirtwaist manufacturers. Her speech brought the crowd to its feet. In an industry with some thirty‑two thousand workers and six hundred shops, over twenty thousand shirt‑waist workers--all women--joined the Triangle strikers in a citywide walkout.

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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.