Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909
A steamship pulls into the harbor, carrying hundreds of immigrants-and a surprise for New York City.
The surprise is dirt poor, just five feet tall, and hardly speaks a word of English.
Her name is Clara Lemlich.
This girl’s got grit, and she’s going to prove it.
Look out, New York!
Clara knows in her bones what is right and what is wrong.
What’s wrong begins a few weeks after the Lemlichs move into their tenement in America.
No one will hire Clara’s father.
They will, however, hire Clara.
That’s right-Clara. Companies are hiring thousands of immigrant girls to make blouses, coats, nightgowns, and other women’s clothing. They earn only a few dollars a month, but it helps pay for food and rent. So instead of carrying books to school, many girls carry sewing machines to work. Clara becomes a garment worker.
From dawn to dusk, she’s locked up in a factory. Rows and rows of young women bend over their tables, stitching collars, sleeves, and cuffs as fast as they can. “Hurry up, hurry up,” the bosses yell. Ratatatatat,hisses Clara’s machine. The sunless room is stuffy from all the bodies crammed inside. There are two filthy toilets, one sink, and three towels for three hundred girls to share.
If you prick your finger and bleed on the cloth, you’re fined. If it happens a second time, you’re fired.
Clara learns the rules. If you’re a few minutes late, you lose half a day’s pay.
The doors are locked, and you’re inspected every night before you leave to be sure you haven’t stolen anything from the factory.
But Clara is uncrushable.
She wants to read, she wants to learn! At the end of her shift, though her eyes hurt from straining in the gaslight and her back hurts from hunching over the sewing machine, she walks to the library.
She fills her empty stomach with a single glass of milk and goes to school at night. When she gets home in the late evening, she sleeps only a few hours before rising again.
As the weeks grind by Clara makes friends with the other factory girls. At lunch, they share stories and secrets as if they were in school, where they belong. Clara smolders with anger, not just for herself, but for all the factory girls, working like slaves. This was not the America she’d imagined.
The men at the factory tell her they’ve been trying to get the workers to team up in a union. Then they’d strike-refuse to work-until the bosses treat them better. But the men don’t think the ladies are tough enough.
Not tough enough?
Because they’re girls?
Oh, yes, they are. Clara knows it.
She’ll show them.
From then on, at the sewing tables and on the street corners, Clara urges the girls to fight for their rights.
When the seamstresses are overworked, she says, “Strike!”
When they’re underpaid, she says, “Strike!”
When they’re punished for speaking up, she cries, “Strike!”
And the girls do!
Each time Clara leads a walkout, the bosses fire her. Each time she pickets, her life is in danger.
The bosses hire men to beat her and the other strikers.
The police arrest her seventeen times.
They break six of her ribs, but they can’t break her spirit. It’s shatterproof.
Clara hides her bruises from her parents.
A few days later, she’s on the picket line again.
And the other girls think, If she can do it, we can do it too.
For weeks the small strikes go on. But the bosses find other young women to do the work for the same low pay and long hours.
We must do something bigger,think Clara and other union leaders. Something huge. A giant strike, at every garment factory in the city.
The union holds a meeting. Throngs of workers pack the seats, the aisles, the walls-the hall thrums with excitement. Clara listens to speech after speech.
The speakers, mostly men, want everyone to be careful. Two hours pass. No one recommends a general strike.
Finally the most powerful union leader in the country goes up to the podium. Not even he proposes action!
So Clara does.
That’s right-Clara. She calls out from the front of the hall. The crowd lifts her to the stage, where she shouts in Yiddish:
“I have no further patience for talk-I move that we go on a general strike!”
And she starts the largest walkout of women workers in U.S. history.
The next morning, New York City is stunned by the sight of thousands of young women streaming from the factories.
One newspaper calls it an army. Others call it a revolt. It’s a revolt of girls, for some are only twelve years old, and the rest are barely out of their teens.
In the coming weeks, Clara is called a hero. She lights up chilly union halls with her fiery pep talks. Her singing lifts the spirits of the picketers. When a group of thugs approaches, she yells, “Stand fast, girls!”
And they do. All winter long, in the bitter cold, in their cheap, thin coats, tired and starving and scared, the girls walk alongside the men on the icy sidewalks of the picket line. They spill out of the union halls, blocking the roads, filling street corners and public squares.
Newspapers write stories about them.
College girls raise money for them.
Rich women-swathed in fur coats-picket with the factory girls.
By the time the strike is over, hundreds of bosses agree to let their staff form unions. They shorten the workweek and raise salaries.
The strike emboldens thousands of women to walk out of garment factories in Philadelphia and Chicago.
And the strike convinces Clara to keep fighting for the rights of workers. Her throat is hoarse, her feet are sore, but she has helped thousands of people.
Proving that in America, wrongs can be righted, warriors can wear skirts and blouses, and the bravest hearts may beat in girls only five feet tall.
MORE ABOUT THE GARMENT INDUSTRY
Between 1880 and 1920, two million Jews immigrated to America, fleeing persecution, pogroms (government-sanctioned attacks), and poverty in Russia, Ukraine, Poland, and other parts of Eastern Europe. Many of these immigrants found work in the booming garment industry. In 1909, the year of the general strike, nearly four hundred factories employing forty thousand people made blouses for half the country. Of these workers, 80 percent were female, 70 percent were between sixteen and twenty-five years of age, and 65 percent were Russian/Eastern European Jewish (the remainder of workers were Italian and American). Many of the factory owners were Eastern European Jews who had worked their way up in the business.
Abuses were rampant throughout the industry. Many bosses shaved time off lunch hours, set clocks back at the end of the day to fool the workers, made them work long hours-including illegal evening work-for little money, forced them to pay for cloth soiled with blood or spilled food, and fired them at will. Some factories hired girls as young as six years old to cut threads from garments.
At the beginning of the 1909 strike, police and judges sided with the affluent factory owners. Six hundred young women were arrested, and thirteen girls, one as young as twelve years old, were sentenced to five days in the workhouse. Police brutality ceased only when members of the Women’s Trade Union League, made up of wealthy and middle-class women, joined the picketers and held meetings to publicize their plight.
When the strike ended, 339 waist and dress manufacturing firms allowed workers to form unions, shortened their workweek, and increased their hourly wages. Some companies refused to negotiate, notably the Triangle Waist Factory where the following year hazardous conditions led to a fire that claimed 146 lives. The tragedy raised public awareness even further about the evils of the garment industry (Clara Lemlich, then in her early twenties, investigated health and safety conditions in the garment district for the union.)
In the aftermath of the strike, thousands of workers in Philadelphia-as well as in Chicago, Cleveland, and Kalamazoo-struck for better working conditions or campaigned for the right to organize unions. Along with Clara, fellow strikers Pauline Newman and Rose Schneiderman took on leadership roles in the labor movement. The progress made by the garment industry activists affected jobs throughout the country.
Though there are still wrongs to be righted, today’s workers have five-day workweeks, overtime pay, and other protections due in great part to labor leaders like Clara Lemlich and the thousands of brave girls who picketed in the winter of 1909.
Michelle Markel; Melissa Sweet
New York, Balzer+Bray, 2013