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Clara Lemlich at Cooper Union
downloadDescription:

Text courtesy of Jewish Women's Archive and Travelgoat.

In November 1909, Triangle Factory workers had defied their bosses and walked out of the shop in protest. This walkout led the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), to organize a meeting at Cooper Union. On the evening...

downloadDescription:

Text courtesy of Jewish Women's Archive and Travelgoat.

In November 1909, Triangle Factory workers had defied their bosses and walked out of the shop in protest. This walkout led the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), to organize a meeting at Cooper Union. On the evening of November 22, over a thousand garment workers and supporters crammed into the Grand Hall. The 900-seat, windowless room was packed.

Many prominent male unionists made their way to the podium to offer encouraging words but caution against a general strike. After about two hours, a slight young woman interrupted a speaker and was helped onto the stage. Most people in the crowd that night would have known that Clara Lemlich was a respected labor organizer. Not quite five feet tall, she had only recently been beaten by hired thugs after she led a walkout at the factory where she worked.

Clara spoke passionately in Yiddish, stating, "I have listened to all the speakers. I would not have further patience for talk, as I am one of those who feels and suffers from the things pictured. I move that we go on a general strike!” Her audacity ignited the crowd in Cooper Union. The workers then voted in favor of a general strike, despite the hardships they knew it would bring.

Though most middle-class supporters and many men in the union were opposed to the idea, thousands of women workers, many of them young Jewish immigrants, supported the action, launching the 11-week strike that came to be known as the “Uprising of the 20,000.”

The strike ended in February 1910, when the union won concessions from the owners of 279 factories, which employed 15,000 workers: an increase in wages, a 52-hour work week, and “limited required overtime,” as well as at least four paid holidays a year, no discrimination against union members, and the right to negotiate with employees.

However, several of the larger factories, including the Triangle, did not recognize the union or agree to its demands. The owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris gave striking workers their jobs back and increased wages slightly but ignored most of the union’s other demands, including improved safety measures such as unlocked doors and better fire escapes.

Cooper Union, New York