A 23-year-old launches a 1909 labor revolt

In the early 1900s, Clara Lemlich’s life resembled that of thousands of other immigrant girls.

Born in the Ukraine in 1886, she came to New York with her family in 1903. Still a teenager and barely five feet tall, she toiled at a job as a draper in a waist factory.

“We worked from sunrise to sunset seven days a week,” she wrote in a 1965 letter. “The shops were located in old dilapidated buildings, in the back of stores . . . the hissing of the machines, the yelling of the Foreman made life unbearable.”

Strikes were frequent, and Lemlich didn’t shy away from the picket line. “However every strike we called was broken by the police and gangsters hired by the bosses,” she wrote.

From 1906 to 1909, Lemlich was arrested more than 17 times and was beaten up by hired thugs who broke her ribs and tried to intimidate her.

Their tactics didn’t work. “Infuriated by working conditions that, she said, reduced human beings to the status of machines, she began organizing women into the fledgling International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) soon after her arrival,” stated the Jewish Women’s Archive.

“The older, skilled male workers who dominated the union resisted her efforts, but whenever they attempted to strike without informing the women, Clara brazenly warned them that their union would never get off the ground until they made an effort to include women.”

Lemlich’s bravest hour, however, came in November 1909.

A meeting was being held at Cooper Union (left, in 1899) to determine whether sweatshop workers citywide should go on strike.

Defying older male union leaders, she rose to the podium. “I am one of those who suffers from the abuses described here, and I move that we go on a general strike,” she told the crowd in Yiddish.

In her own letter recalling the incident, she wrote that she actually said, “I make a motion that we go out in a general strike.”

Whatever she said exactly, her words helped galvanize support for a strike that began in late November 1909.

“Between 30,000 and 40,000 young women garment workers—predominantly Jewish immigrants (some pictured at left)—walked off their jobs over the next few weeks,” explained the Jewish Women’s Archive.

Dubbed the Uprising of the 20,000, the strike made newspaper headlines; workers who were arrested had their bail paid for by wealthy women (like Anne Morgan, below, daughter of J.P. Morgan) who supported their efforts.

By February 1910, the strike was over. Most of the sweatshops agreed some of their demands for better pay, improved work conditions, and shorter hours.

One that didn’t was the Triangle Waist Company—where a little more than a year later in March 1911, 146 workers perished in a fire at the Greene Street factory.

The Triangle fire was a turning point in New York, helping to create laws to guarantee safer factories and more fair wages.

It was a turning point for Lemlich as well. Blacklisted from garment factories for her union activities, she married in 1913 and had three children.

Her revolutionary nature didn’t change, however. She rallied for affordable housing and access to education. She was instrumental in organizing the kosher meat boycotts of 1917 and the citywide rent strike of 1919.

Even as a senior citizen, Lemlich continued to fight. While she was a resident of the Jewish Home for the Aged in Los Angeles in the 1960s, she helped staff orderlies organize a union.

Lemlich died in 1982 when she was 96. At the time, her death went largely unnoticed.

But a push to recognize activists like Lemlich has brought her new attention—as one of the farbrente Yidishe meydlekh (fiery Jewish girls) who led the battle for better working conditions, according to the Jewish Women’s Archive.

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13 Responses to “A 23-year-old launches a 1909 labor revolt”

  1. keenanpatrick424 Says:

    Clara Lemlich certainly had moxie!

  2. Jennifer Metz Says:

    Wonderful! So inspiring!

  3. Bookpod Says:

    The New York Times rectified its neglect of Clara Lemlich in its obituary page in August 2018 with a long-overdue obit: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/01/obituaries/overlooked-clara-lemlich-shavelson.html

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Yes I saw that when it ran…I had been planning to cover Clara’s story for months but they beat me to it!

  4. Shaun Hervey Says:

    More like this please

  5. nwpaintedlady Says:

    What an outstanding post ~ loved it.

  6. nwpaintedlady Says:

    Reblogged this on Branches On Our Haimowitz Family Tree and commented:
    After reading this outstanding post by one of my favorite blogs, I decided I would really like to share it with you. In light of election day, a right we must never take for granted, let us not forget that our fore mothers fought for our rights, right to vote, right to fair wages, right to fair working conditions so in honor of them it was easy peasy to click the reblog button and here we go…I hope you enjoy it as much as I did ~ Sharon

  7. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    So glad this post was so well received!

  8. dezertsuz Says:

    Thank you for publicizing this piece of history. I’m so glad to know it.

  9. David H Lippman Says:

    The Triangle Fire involved two of my family members.

    According to my rellies, Aunt Gus was a young worker there, who crawled to safety across a ladder to an NYU classroom. This is not authenticated.

    However, Uncle Joe’s story IS accurate…he was a kid playing in Washington Square Park where he grew up, and he and his buddies saw the horsedrawn fire engines zooming across the streets towards Washington Place. Needless to say, they followed and found them pull up in front of the building, with smoke pouring out of the top floors. The hoses could not reach the top floors. To Uncle Joe’s astonishment, he saw people leap from the building ledges in desperation and despair and slam into the sidewalk or street and die. He never forgot that image.

    Years later, he met Gus, married her, and that’s how he got into my family.

    Cue Paul Harvey.

  10. Friday's Family History Finds | Empty Branches on the Family Tree Says:

    […] A 23-Year-Old Launches a 1909 Labor Revolt on Ephemeral New York […]

  11. A teenage immigrant who became a “sweatshop girl” tells her life story | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] story ends here, on the brink of marriage and foreshadowing a decade of social change for the thousands of sweatshop and factory workers like herself. What could have become of this plucky, pleasure-loving, sensible girl? I bet she had […]

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