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Honoring Working Women’s Struggles

Sharon Smith Mar 12, 2012

The first International Women's Day–known as "Working Women's Day"–was celebrated on the heels of one of the most massive and militant struggles of women workers in the U.S.: the uprising of 20,000 New York City garment workers in the winter of 1909-1910.

Moreover, "Working Women's Day" was organized by the garment workers as a deliberate break from the middle-class suffragists who had betrayed them during the course of the strike.

The strike itself was nothing less than an explosion that overnight swept through the entire New York garment district, drawing more than 20,000 workers from 500 shops into struggle against the starvation wages, long hours and brutal treatment in the sweatshops and the factories.

And 75 percent of the strikers were women–many of them teenagers–which gave lie to the dominant assumption in the labor movement that women workers were unorganizable. In the words of Clara Lemlich, a 19-year-old woman who became one of the strike's leaders, "They used to say you couldn't even organize women. They wouldn't come to union meetings. They were 'temporary workers.' Well, we showed them!"

The American Federation of Labor (AFL) leadership was hesitant to lead a general strike in the garment trades, even when mandated to do so by a crowd of several thousand workers packed into the Cooper Union auditorium on the eve of the strike. But the crowd grew tired of hearing speaker after speaker, including AFL head Samuel Gompers, urging caution and moderation.

Finally, Lemlich–who, at the age of 19, was already a veteran labor militant, having been arrested 17 times in a previous strike–stood up to address the workers in her native tongue of Yiddish: "I have listened to all the speakers, and I have no further patience for talk. I am one who feels and suffers from the things pictured. I move we go out in a general strike!"

The workers were instantly on their feet, shouting their approval and chanting strike slogans. And the next morning–November 23, 1909–with equal enthusiasm, they hit the picket lines. By the day's end, some 20,000 workers were on strike, virtually all of them brand-new members of Local 25 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU).

Despite the fact that the pickets were majority women, the police and the courts unleashed a tirade of repression: during the 13-week strike, more than 600 strikers were arrested, many of whom were beaten by the police. Police taunted the women strikers by calling them "whores" for their "unladylike" behavior. They beat the young women, and then charged the strikers with assault.

Some strikers were arrested simply for using the word "scab," or for exercising their lawful right to picket. One judge declared that he would continue to convict workers who used the word "scab" because "there is no word in the English language as irritating as the word 'scab.'"

Another judge informed a group of injured strikers: "You are on strike against God and nature, whose prime law is that man shall earn his bread by the sweat of his brow." When cabled news of this remark, writer George Bernard Shaw in Britain replied, "Delightful. Medieval America is always in the most intimate personal confidence of the Almighty."

Ironically, the strike first appeared to show how women factory workers could count on the support and solidarity of the middle-class suffragists and the high-society "ladies" who took pity on them.

In fact, the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL), an organization of middle-class reformers, actually showed more enthusiasm toward the strike than the leadership of the AFL–which doggedly pursued a strategy of compromise with the employers. It was the WTUL, not the ILGWU, that set up a strike headquarters.

The League members used all their connections to get sympathetic coverage in the newspapers–and indeed, the press played up the dedication of the middle-class supporters, while virtually ignoring the role played by socialists, who ended up being the backbone of the strike support.

The media took delight in descriptions of the fashionable socialites, dressed in fur coats, picketing side by side with the young underfed strikers, holding picket signed demanding higher wages, or carrying the strikers around in their limousines.

But while the rich women had taken pity on the garment workers, as time wore on, their interest began to wane. The "allies"–as the upper-class women were called–began withdrawing their support even as the strikers' determination strengthened, and they began moving toward socialist ideas.

The Manufacturers' Association, representing the larger shops, made a negotiated settlement with the union in late December, which–while making minor concessions on other fronts–rejected the workers' main demand: the closed shop. "On that," the employers stated, "we will not budge."

But the strikers were equally adamant. They overwhelmingly rejected the contract–an act that bewildered the "allies." Beginning with the suffragists, the rich women began abandoning the struggle, citing the strikers' "unreasonable" demands and the excessive influence of socialists.

One angry member of the WTUL, Eva McDonald Valesh, proposed to "start a campaign against socialism," because "socialism is a menace…It just makes those ignorant foreigners discontented, sets them against the government, makes them want to tear down."

While the enthusiasm of the strikers continued at a high pitch in the month that followed, funds began to run very low, and poverty and hunger became urgent problems. And while the WTUL continued to run a soup kitchen to help feed the strikers, the rich women had reached the limit of their "generosity."

The employers took advantage of the strikers' increasing desperation. By the second week in February, Local 25 began signing individual contracts with the bigger shops–none of which granted union recognition.

Finally, on February 15, 1910, the union officially declared the strike over, even though some 13 shops were still on strike and were forced to return to work with no gains whatsoever. And the Association still refused to recognize the union. Work hours were reduced to 52.5 hours per week. Wages were yet to be negotiated.

The actions of the rich women had been decisive. And the middle-class suffragists had inspired contempt among many of the women garment workers. So even in the face of defeat, thousands of the women garment workers were moved to form their own suffrage demonstration.

When the Socialist Party organized "Working Women's Day" marches in 1910, the march through the street of New York City was a massive display of solidarity and class consciousness among women workers–putting forward demands for higher wages, better working conditions, along with the demand for the right to vote for women workers.

Tragically, one demand that the strike had not won was for adequate fire escapes and doors. The foreman used to lock the workers in so that they couldn't sneak out. The effects would prove disastrous. Only a year later, on March 25,1911, a fire broke out at one of the larger shops, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. One door was locked, the other was blocked by fire, and the workers could not escape.

Of the 500 workers, more than 100 were trapped inside and burned to death. Others tried to hurl themselves down ladders, some were impaled on the iron spike fence underneath, and others jumped to their death. All told, 154 workers were killed in the blaze.

The Triangle Fire would be a bitter reminder to the 20,000 garment workers of what they already knew: their demands for the closed shop had been crucial, literally a matter of life and death–something the rich women could not understand.

The heroism of the garment workers inspired German socialist leader Clara Zetkin to move a resolution at the 1910 congress of the Second International Conference of Working Women to make March 8 International Working Women's Day. The uprising of the 20,000 remains an inspiration today.

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