SLIDESHOW: This Labor Day We Honor Clara Lemlich and The Brave Women Strikers of The Garment and Shirt Waist Factories

Sunday, August 31, 2014


Just a little over a century ago, women were without labor rights and subjected to unforeseen atrocities inside the workplace. Comprising the majority of garment and shirtwaist factory workers, they worked long hours for meager pay and was forced to work behind locked doors so that their bosses could control the work environment; bathroom breaks were only garnered by approval. Though the New York garment factories were occupied by mostly female workers, many were Jewish and Italian immigrants. Branded with the title, sweatshops- they were extremely hazardous and filthy.  

On November 22, 1909, Clara Lemlich a 23 year old garment worker declared in Yiddish that the shirtwaist workers should go on strike. She pledged an oath that moved the workers, "If I turn traitor to the cause I now pledge, may this hand wither from the arm I now raise,". Prior this day, Clara had already been arrested 17 times and had several broken ribs to show for it.

The labor strike organized by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union initially ignited 15,000 workers from 500 factories throughout New York. It eventually rose to 20,000 giving it the name the  Uprising of the 20,000, and the New York Shirtwaist Strike of 1909,  a critical turning point for the labor movement.

The strike ended a year later on March 25, 1911 as a result of  Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire which killed 146 people in under 18 minutes. It was considered  the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of the city of New York, and one of the deadliest in U.S. history which exposed the plight of immigrant women working in dangerous and difficult conditions. Most of the victims were women aged sixteen to twenty-three. Because the owners had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits, a common practice used to prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks  or even theft, many of the workers who could not escape the burning building jumped from the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors to the streets below. The fire led to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union from hundreds to some 20,000 which strived for better working conditions for women.

"The Washington Place Fire" An eyewitness account



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