The meetinghouse was overflowing. Thousands of New York City’s garment workers -- mainly poor, young, immigrant women, many of whom did not speak English – packed the Cooper Union hall for a meeting called by Local 25 of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.
It was November 22, 1909, and the city’s garment industry was in full swing, employing more than 30,000 who toiled long hours in mainly unsafe conditions and for little pay. Workers, subjected to daily humiliations by bosses and foremen and under the constant grind to produce ever more products for the companies they worked to stave off the intense competition, had reached a breaking point.
They wanted change.
For hours they listened to speeches by the men who headed the nascent unions of the time – most notably the American Federation of Labor – who talked about the need for reform and the ways to accomplish that. But the message, even from the AFL’s Samuel Gompers, was not the exclamation point the crowed seemed to be looking for.
In the audience that night was a slight Jewish girl, a union agitator already known for her rabble rousing.
Clara Lemlich was a draper at Louis Leiserson’s shirtwaist factory. Where Gompers and his fellow union leaders failed to sway the crowd, Lemlich succeeded in providing the words needed to send 20,000 garment workers into the streets the next day on a general strike that would eventually lead to the reformation of the garment industry in New York, crippling an entire industry built on the toil of immigrant women, and forwarding the cause of worker’s unions first in New York, and eventually nationwide.
Her short speech would eventually help pave the way for a long-needed reformation of the industry that employed thousands of immigrant women and bring into polite conversation the plight of women in the workplace.
Barely more than 5 feet tall, Lemlich, who was in her 20s, took to the podium, unannounced, following a stirring, but measured, speech by Gompers, founder of the AFL.
"I'm a working girl, one of those on strike against intolerable conditions, I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in general terms,” she said. “What we are here for is to decide whether we shall or shall not strike. I offer a resolution that a general strike be declared--now!"
And so it began.
The next day, 20,000-30,000 garment workers – women, chiefly, who for the first time were testing their newfound power and influence in the workplace -- walked off the job and into the streets, creating a massive general strike of garment workers that would become known as the “Uprising of 20,000.”
The Shirtwaist Worker’s Strike crippled New York City’s garment industry. Production ground to a halt as workers, long tired of the poor and unsafe working conditions of the factories and ill treatment by their bosses, left sewing machines quiet in an industry that depended on their acquiescence and timidity.
The strike was successful in unionizing numerous garment shops in New York, as the pressures felt by small shops to get back to work conceded to worker demands for union-only shops, shorter hours, better pay. Within two days, scores of the city’s 500-plus garment shops had caved to worker demands. The Uprising of 20,000 was already a success, if incomplete.
But it was not a timid affair. Employers hired street thugs and prostitutes to harass and beat picketers. Strikers were arrested in large numbers by a complacent New York City police department, at the behest of the Democratic Party political machine, Tammany Hall.
Beatings weren’t the only punishment the striking women had to endure. Adding to their burden was the loss of wages. Meager as they were, the money they earned inside the factories was just shy of enough to get by. Without it, workers barely hung on. They were striking, in part, to end the disrespect they felt while at work. But on the picket line, no indignity was spared. Employers hired prostitutes as strikebreakers outside the Triangle factory.
The strike wore on into December. Thousands were still off the job at hundreds of shops. It was cold on the picket lines. Strikers had been beaten up, arrested and unpaid for weeks. Morale was low.
But then, Anne Morgan, daughter of J.P. Morgan, became interested in the cause of the shirtwaist strikers. Morgan and several of her high-society friends joined the Women’s Trades Union to become more in touch with the strikers’ cause. Morgan breathed new life into the weary strikers, bringing much needed money.
But equally as important, Morgan’s endorsement also brought a new legitimacy. Morgan’s allegiance also made great copy, and the newspapers churned out story after story about the unlikely pairing.
The strike went on for 14 weeks. By the time it ended in February 1910, 354 employers agreed to union-only shops. Workers also won a 52-hour workweek, wage raises, paid holidays, an abolishment of the subcontracting system that undercut many workers, a limitation of night work and other concessions.
Not only had the women gotten the attention of their employers, they had their respect, even if begrudging.
It was the first time a women-centered work action had ever taken place. It was massive in scale and won massive concessions. The idea of a union-only garment industry shop before the strike had been nearly unheard of.
After, they were becoming the norm. An industry based on the timidity of women was now dependent on placating their demands. There was a paradigm shift in the power relationship that the strike helped to equalize, bringing employers and workers to closer levels.
Also, the establishment of the 52-hour work week was significant not only for women, or even just for the garment industry, but for workers, men and women, in all industries which would eventually come to adopt it.
The Uprising of 20,000 was an essential stepping-stone in the progression of acceptance of unionization generally, and women’s right to organize specifically. But it failed to make the long-lasting, institutional changes necessary to promote the women’s labor movement and its acceptance into the cultural lexicon. The wholesale tragedy of the Triangle Waist Factory fire, unfortunately, was that catalyst.