It was a devouring inferno. Employees labored sixty‑five hours a week. At the height of the season they worked seventy‑five hours, and sometimes 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 20‑year‑old in 1910 when she helped organize the Chicago strike of 33,000 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.
In the shirtwaist factories, Jewish women made up 70 percent of the labor 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 19‑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 32,000 workers and 600 shops, over 20,000 shirtwaist workers–all women–joined the Triangle strikers in a citywide walkout.
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 52 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.
Reprinted with permission from A History of the Jews in America, published by Knopf.