The uprising of the 30,000

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Migrant workers have historically found it difficult to organise and fight. John Newsinger writes of a furious strike over conditions in New York, 1909, waged by newly organised migrant women garment workers who fought bitterly to the brink of victory, despite hired thugs and conservative union leaders

The Local 25 branch of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) had some 2,000 members working in the shirtwaist trade in 1909. They were mainly young Jewish women, immigrants from Tsarist Russia. On the evening of 22 November the branch organised a mass rally at New York's Cooper Union hall. The turnout took the organisers completely by surprise. Thousands came, both union members and non-members, and overspill meetings had to be arranged hastily in another half a dozen halls. At the Cooper Union itself the workers listened for over two hours as speaker after speaker, including Samuel Gompers, the right wing leader of the American Federation of Labour (AFL), sympathised with their circumstances, deplored the exploitation they suffered, but urged restraint.

At last a young woman, Clara Lemlich, stood up and demanded the right to speak. Although some accounts describe her as an inexperienced teenager, she was, in fact, in her early twenties, had been a revolutionary socialist since her teens in Russia and was already a veteran trade unionist. Clara was one of the founders of Local 25 and a member of its executive. Her workplace, Leiserson's, was already on strike and she had been arrested 17 times on the picket line, on one occasion receiving a terrible beating that left her with six broken ribs that laid her up for four weeks. She was a well known and popular rank and file leader.

The chairman, David Feigenbaum, invited her onto the platform and, speaking in Yiddish, she addressed her fellow workers: "I am a working girl, one of those who is 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."

A reporter present at the time wrote that at this "the big gathering was on its feet, everyone shouting an emphatic affirmative, waving hats, canes and handkerchiefs, anything that came handy. For five minutes, perhaps, the tumult continued." The meeting quietened down and Feigenbaum was able to ask for a seconder. Once again everyone was on their feet. He put the resolution in the form of an old Jewish oath: "If I turn traitor to the cause I now pledge, may this hand wither from the arm I now raise." The vote was unanimous. It was repeated in all the overspill meetings. The Uprising of the 30,000 had begun.

The New York shirtwaist trade employed some 30,000 workers in 600 workshops in 1909. It was dominated by some 60 large firms that employed 200 to 300 workers, but most firms employed 50 or less. The great majority of the workers were young women aged between 16 and 25, but there were girls as young as 14 and 15 working. Some two thirds of the workers were Jewish immigrants and most of the rest were Italian immigrants. They worked in a trade where profit margins were tight and had to be "sweated" out of the workers. Wages were low, hours were long, overtime was unpaid and punitive fines and charges were routinely levied. Some firms charged the workers for the electricity to work their sewing machines and rent for the chairs they sat on to work. Charges were made for broken needles and damaged cloth. Many of the women were the victims of sexual harassment.

The union charged with remedying these injustices was hardly a model of militancy. The national leadership of the ILGWU was staunchly right wing, unsympathetic to strikes and in favour of sweetheart deals with the bosses. Alexander Dyche, the union general secretary, was a strong believer in what he described as "sane and responsible leadership". Union officials, he insisted, should "be conservative, practical-minded men who will stand between the employers and union members and resolutely insist upon fair dealing on the part of both". This "moderation" was to be swept aside.

The first indications of the rising tide of unrest came when 200 workers at Rosen Brothers won a walkout in July 1909. Encouraged by this victory, the membership of Local 25 increased from 100 to 2,000. Bitter, protracted strikes at Leiserson's and at the Triangle Waist Company followed. The Cooper Union meeting was intended to rally support for these workers. The vote for a general strike throughout the trade did indeed transform the situation. On the first day of the strike some 20,000 workers, men and women, were out and by the end of the first week the number had risen to 30,000. It was at that time the largest strike by women workers in US history.

The strikers picketed enthusiastically in the face of considerable violence. The bosses hired thugs to attack them with the police standing by while the assaults took place. They then moved in to arrest the battered and bloodied young women, often clubbing them into the bargain. This was so regular an occurrence as to show conclusively that an arrangement had been reached between the police and the employers.

By 25 December 723 women had been arrested on the picket lines, most fined, but 19 sentenced to terms in the workhouse. One magistrate, when sentencing a young woman, told her that "you are on strike against god and nature". All that prevented greater violence was the presence of middle and upper class women suffrage campaigners on the picket line. One policeman, embarrassed to find that he had arrested a "respectable" woman, told her in court that if he had known she was rich he would "not have arrested her for all the world".

Arbitration produced a proposed settlement that conceded general improvements in pay, hours and conditions together with promises of no victimisation, but the employers would not agree to recognise the union or accept the closed shop. They were prepared to concede most of what the union demanded, but not the means to enforce it. When officials tried to put the proposals to the strikers on 27 December, they were shouted down and the deal was overwhelmingly rejected. The New York socialist newspaper, The Call, put out a special "strike edition", explaining the reasons for the rejection with articles in Yiddish, Italian and English. The strikers sold over 45,000 copies on the street.

Many small employers had already accepted the union's terms and now more rushed to do the same. By early February over 300 firms had conceded union recognition and the closed shop. In many other firms the strikers were returning on locally negotiated terms, leaving only a handful of the bigger firms, among them the Triangle Waist Company, holding out. With most of its demands won, the industry transformed, and its members exhausted, Local 25 decided to settle for an incomplete victory and to continue the fight another day. On 15 February the strike was finally called off with 13 firms without union agreements.

At the Triangle Waist Company the management had rejected every union demand, including those regarding safety. This was to have terrible consequences. The factory occupied the top three floors of the 10-storey Asch Building. On 25 March 1911, a fire broke out. When the women tried to escape, they found that one of the two doors was locked in complete violation of safety regulations.

Firemen later found 19 charred bodies piled up around the door. When they had tried to escape by means of the fire escape, it collapsed under the weight, plunging many of them to their deaths. With no way to escape, many workers leapt to their deaths down the lift shaft, where firemen found over 20 bodies on the roof of the lift. Most horrific, 62 workers, nearly all of them young women, many of them with their hair and clothes on fire, leapt to their deaths from the factory windows. The pavement was piled with corpses and awash with blood. Altogether 146 workers, once again nearly all women, died. The youngest was Mary Goldstein, a girl of 11. It was, as The Call put it, "murder and nothing else but murder".

One of the survivors, Rose Safron, a veteran of the strike, lamented that at the Triangle, "Our bosses won and we went back as an open shop... If the union had won we would have been safe. Two of our demands were for adequate fire escapes and for open doors... But the bosses defeated us and we didn't get the open doors or the better fire escapes. So our friends are dead." It will come as no surprise that when the Triangle Company's owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, were prosecuted, they were acquitted to shouts of "Murderers" from the relatives of the dead.

Let us leave the last word with one of the shirtwaist workers, Rose Schneiderman, speaking at a memorial meeting at the Metropolitan Opera House. She addressed the middle class members of the audience:

"I would be a traitor to those poor burned bodies if I were to come here and talk good fellowship... This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in this city. Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred. There are so many of us for one job, it matters little if 140-odd are burned to death... I can't talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. And the only way is through a strong labour movement."