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 outpouring stunned the employers. In consternation, they mobilized every weapon in their arsenal. As always, the police could be depended upon. In the first month of the enlarged strike, 723 girls were arrested, 19 sent to the workhouse. One magistrate, sentencing a picket for "incitement," shouted, "You are striking against God and Nature, whose law is that man shall earn his bread by the sweat of his brow. You are on strike against God!"

Not all the city's "respect­able" elements saw matters that way. Many upper‑class New York­ers were moved by the spectacle of impoverished immigrant girls defying police and hired thugs. The press was generally favorable. Protestant and Catholic clergymen, as well as the totality of the Re­form rabbinate, sermonized on behalf of the strikers.

Progressives, women's‑suffrage leaders, and other social reformers organized ral­lies for them. Wealthy New York women provided bail money, then marched with the strikers on the picket lines, occasionally even were arrested with them. Indeed, the poignancy of a women's uprising, the first in American history, inspired three novels, each of them using Clara Lemlich as its pseudonymous heroine.

By early 1910, management un­derstood that it had lost the war of public opinion. Evidently the strikers were prepared to continue through the entire fashion season.  It was time to negotiate. After two weeks of intense discussions, an agreement was reached. Under its terms, the manufacturers con­sented to reduce the workweek to fifty‑two hours and to provide four legal holidays with pay. Employees no longer were obliged to supply their own tools. A joint grievance committee would negotiate issues as they arose

The strike established a precedent for serious collective action in other branches of the garment economy, and eventually in the American economy at large.

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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.