Moving on

Female Workers Learn Empowering Lessons

"The shirtwaist strike has been a tremendously educative force."

--The New York Times, March 8, 1910

Strikers show solidarity and march arm in arm.
The “Uprising of the 20,000,” as history has dubbed the strike, may not have been a complete victory for the shirtwaist workers – as they never did get that last proviso, that the manufacturers convert their factories to closed union shops – but they did triumph on many other levels. They won a shorter 52-hour workweek, four paid holidays, equal work seasons, employer-furnished supplies, the abolishment of subcontracting within the shop, the promise not to discriminate against union members, the return to their old jobs, as well as assurance that the manufacturers association will welcome communications from employees at any time. Even these victorious ladies knew, however, that their work was far from over. They needed to maintain their strength within the workplace to guarantee that such promises were carried out, and to raise their voices to their bosses or the union if they were not.

Perhaps the greatest success of the shirtwaist makers’ strike was its establishing of the working woman as a viable political force within her industry. The strike was at that time the biggest demonstration of female workers in the United States. Union membership – especially, of course, in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union – rose significantly. Particularly in the women’s clothing trade, uninformed workers sought and established organization. The women inspired other industrial workers to speak up for themselves and take action if need be: “Within five months after the ‘girls strike,’ the workers in the cloak and suit trade of New York, the majority of whom were men, entered upon their struggle,” which resulted in the “Great Revolt” of 1910, during which at least 50,000 cloak makers took to the streets to picket their employers (Levine 168). Certainly the women’s shirtwaist strike educated female workers as to what avenues were available to them should they encounter workplace problems, but more importantly it gave these women the knowledge that their voices, when raised, could be heard, that they need not sit silent and merely hope that their employers will effect change.