Her widowed mother moved Pauline and her sisters from Lithuania to Madison Street on the Lower East Side in 1901, into a tenement with no bathroom or windows.
A few years later, Pauline began sewing shirtwaists in a factory—the Triangle Waist Company, actually, though this was three years before the deadly fire there.
Active in the growing labor movement and a future leader of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, Pauline was frustrated with the working and living conditions around her.
Tenement life was rough. And then, in fall 1907, landlords called for a rent hike—without making the buildings any more liveable.
So in December, she helped organize a rent strike, enlisting 400 other “working girls” who supported themselves on factory wages, to try to persuade other families to join with them and demand an 18-20 percent rent decrease.
“From 1905 to 1907, the average rent had increased 33 percent,” wrote Susan Campbell Bartoletti in Kids on Strike! “The cost of a two-room apartment had risen from fifteen dollars to twenty.”
On December 28, having convinced 10,000 households to withhold rent, the strike began.
Rent wasn’t paid, building code violations were tallied and reported, kids burned an effigy of a landlord (below photo) and The New York Times dubbed Pauline the “East Side Joan of Arc.”
Some landlords agreed to reduce rents somewhat, but evicted tenants got no sympathy from the NYPD chief, who reportedly said, “If you don’t like your rents, get out.”
In early January, both sides claimed victory. “The rent strike resulted in reduced rents for approximately two thousand families,” wrote Bartoletti.
“[The strikers and their supporters] lobbied for rent to be capped at 30 percent of a worker’s income. But rent control was difficult to win; it took over twenty years for the passage of rent control laws.”
Laws we’re still debating today.
[Second photo: LOC; fourth photo: from The New York Times archive, a 1919 rent strike in Harlem inspired by Pauline's efforts]
Tags: immigrants Lower East Side, Labor leaders New York City, Lower East Side ghetto, Pauline Newman, Rent strike New York City, rent strike of 1907, tenements in New York City, Triangle Waist Company