With the arrest of Mary Drier and the publicity it brought the strike, the movement of shirtwaist workers into the union became pronounced. More joined each week, and sympathy strikes began at two firms that were doing secret scab work for the Triangle bosses. The activists of Local 25, including Rachel and Sarah, were convinced the time had come to call a general strike of the whole shirtwaist industry, but the leader of the local was adamantly opposed. “The International doesn’t even have the money to pay strike benefits to the people already out,” he snorted. But eventually he bowed to pressure and a mass meeting was scheduled for November 22 at Cooper Union. Samuel Gompers himself, president of the AFL, agreed to speak; the call went out in the Forward, and the flow of new members into the office at Clinton Hall became a flood.
On the night of November 22, Sarah, shifting restlessly in her chair, looked around at the enormous crowd of shirtwaist workers. The place was a sea of Merry Widow hats; so many girls were there that even Cooper Union, with its two thousand seats, couldn’t hold them all. Even so, it didn’t look as though anything would be settled very soon. The meeting had already lasted for what seemed an eternity.
Becky poked her in the ribs and she jumped. “Is this going on all night?” she whispered loudly, and the girls in front of them turned and nodded in agreement. “What do they think this is, one of their socialist meetings? These women still have things to do when they go home. Some of them are going to start leaving unless something happens pretty quick.”
The line of speakers covered the platform. Only half had spoken so far, several in English, which few in the audience could understand. Gompers, as predicted, had said they shouldn’t strike unless it was absolutely necessary, but if it was, they should stick together. Others too had advised moderation and prudence. No one had put forward any plans or given any concrete direction. What was the matter with them?
“Sarah,” hissed Rachel from down the aisle, “do something!’
Fanny reached over Becky’s statuesque form and clutched Sarah’s hand. “Just get up,” she whispered. “It’ll be all right. Say we want a strike.”
Benjamin Feigenbaum of the United Hebrew Trades had just finished introducing Jacob Panken, a socialist lawyer. If he starts, he’ll go on forever, thought Sarah, and she was suddenly on her feet and in the aisle, pushing her way forward and shouting, “Mr. Chairman! Mr. Chairman!”
Heads craned to find out who it was. The whispering stopped. A few girls in the back stood up in order to see better. Feigenbaum came to the edge of the stage calling. “Who’s that? What’s the matter?”
Sarah stepped into the circle of light at the front. Her knees could barely hold her up. “I have to say something,” she said weakly.
Jacob Panken opined that this was quite irregular; he had just begun his speech. Goldstein mentioned that if she had wanted to speak she should have told the committee. Besides, they had too many speakers already. Cahan said, “She is a striker, after all.” A certain amount of platform bickering became visible. But Feigenbaum held out his hand and helped her onto the stage, saying loudly, “She’s the striker from Triangle who got beat up and she’s been active in the union from the beginning, so who has a better right? Step back for a minute, Jacob.” Sarah stood at the center of the stage and swayed. For a moment her mind went blank with terror and her lips would not move. Then she took a deep breath; her fear receded as her anger returned. The hand she was stretching forward in unconscious appeal turned into a fist.
“I am sick of listening to speeches that go on and on,” she said in her high, passionate voice. “I am sick of people telling me to be careful. All my life people have said, ‘Wait, don’t make trouble’ - we’ve done that for enough years and where has it gotten us? You all know me; I work at Triangle Waist. I’ve been working in the trade since I was fourteen. I’ve been harassed like you, underpaid like you, and I’ve been on strike for four weeks. I’ve been beaten up, I’ve been arrested three times, I’ve gone hungry. I don’t mind if it will build the union.
“We need a union in shirtwaist. It’s the only way we can get decent pay, clean places to work, standards in the industry. These bosses don’t realize they depend on us; they think we need them more than they need us. Without us, they can’t make a dime. Let them learn respect. Let them see the spring season coming on and them with no stock. Let them worry about making ends meet. We can hold out longer than they can because we know how to go hungry already.
“All of us have to strike together. Triangle can’t do it alone, your shop can’t do it alone. If we go out one by one, the bosses will use one shop to scab on another. They’ll subcontract the work and we’ll end up cutting our own throats. If we want to build a union, we must all go out together. We must hit them with one fist!” She held her arms wide in appeal. “I call for a general strike!”
Pandemonium broke out in Cooper Union. Thousands of girls, previously quiet, began to shout, “Hooray!” and “Strike!” waving their arms and stamping their feet. Feigenbaum hugged Sarah ecstatically. Tears were streaming down his face. He waved his hands for quiet, to no effect. “Help me quiet them down so we can vote,” he asked Sarah. She put her finger to her lips, saying, “Shh,” and slowly the crowd stopped talking and waited in excited silence.
“Do you mean faith?” cried Feigenbaum. “Will you take the old Jewish oath?” The women’s heads nodded as one. He held out his right hand. “Hold out your hands and repeat after me,” and as he said the words two thousand hands stretched forward and two thousands voices repeated, “If I turn traitor to the vow I now pledge, may my hand wither from the arm I now raise.”
Then pandemonium broke out once more and Sarah was swept from the stage into the arms of her friends, who were cheering, crying, and jumping up and down.
“We did it!” yelled Becky.
The speakers sat astonished on the stage, forgotten.
“What was that thing they swore in Yiddish?” Joe Coakley asked Cahan.
“It’s from the Bible,” he said. “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand lose its cunning.”
Gompers stared at the cheering, weeping girls, shaking his head in disbelief.
“Never in all my years in the labor movement have I seen a strike meeting like this,” he told Mary Drier.
“Why, no, you’ve never seen one that was mostly women before,” she said, with her sweet, determined smile. “Have you, Mr. Gompers?”
Meredith Tax reading an excerpt from her book, Rivington Street.
Credit: Courtesy of Meredith Tax.