Introduction

Poor Workplace Conditions Lead Ladies to Strike

"If I turn traitor to the cause I now pledge, may this hand wither from the arm I now raise"

-- Jewish oath taken by the shirtwaist makers after deciding to stage a general strike

Thousands of shirtwaist workers met at Cooper Union in New York to decide how to deal with unresponsive employers. Speaking is Samuel Gompers, head of the AFL.
Frustrated by poor conditions in their workplaces and unsatisfactory response from their employers, New York shirtwaist makers met with leaders of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union’s Local 25 on November 22, 1909, at Cooper Union to discuss next steps. After listening to male union and other labor leaders speak, Clara Lemlich asked for permission to address the crowd. Lemlich, an employee at the Leiserson’s factory who had already been on strike, beaten on the picket line, admitted and recently released from the hospital for the resulting injuries, stood up and delivered an impassioned speech in Yiddish, saying “I am a working girl, one of those who are on strike against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in general terms. 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." The crowd, consisting of mostly Jewish immigrants, embraced Lemlich’s call. Meeting chairman Benjamin Feigenbaum, “carried off his feet from by the emotional outburst” exclaimed “Do you mean faith? Will you take the old Jewish oath?” Hands flew up and the women, in Yiddish, declared “If I turn traitor to the cause I now pledge, may this hand wither from the arm I now raise.”

Shirtwaist strikers take their march down Center St.Approximately 20,000 shirtwaist makers -- manufacturers of popular ladies' blouses -- walked out of work the next day. They filled the sidewalks surrounding their workplaces and began what became a weeks-long picketing demonstration. The scant preparation hindered the strikers at first, but sheer resolve bolstered their cause. Although both male and female shirtwaist makers participated in the walkout, the majority of the demonstrators were female. Empowered by their action, the strikers began to redefine their identities. Dissatisfied with their roles as mere cogs in an industrial machine, the striking ladies attempted with the so-called “Uprising of the 20,000” to characterize themselves first and foremost as human beings worth humane treatment. The strikers demanded a 52-hour workweek, that their employers provide supplies instead of charging for them, equally distributed work seasons, paid legal holidays, a consistent and sufficient pay scale, recognition of their union without discrimination, and conversion of the factories to closed union shops. That last proviso was the most difficult to sell to employers. While the lady strikers were developing for themselves this assertive new identity, their employers struggled to accept and later reconcile the change. The press, too, at first had difficulty taking the striking ladies seriously, but as the strike wore on, newspapers bolstered the picketers’ fight. Swayed by the appeals of upper-class politically minded socialite women, publications ran pieces sympathetic to these women’s cause and their emerging identity. Perspectives of the strike -- from the strikers themselves to their employers to the press -- varied from the inception of the demonstration in November 1909 to its end in February 1910.