Excerpt from Pauline Newman’s unpublished memoir, in which she recalls the beginning of the 1909 garment workers’ strike
Despite these inhuman working conditions the workers – including myself – continued to work for this firm. What good would it do to change jobs since similar conditions existed in all garment factories of that era? There were other reasons why we did not change jobs – call them psychological, if you will. One gets used to a place even if it is only a work shop. One gets to know the people you work with. You are no longer a stranger and alone. You have a feeling of belonging which helps to make life in a factory a bit easier to endure. Very often friendships are formed and a common understanding established. These, among other factors made us stay put, as it were…
During the early part of November an unknown (to me) source provided the money for calling a mass meeting of the shirt waist makers in the historic Cooper Union hall. The place was packed. There were many prominent speakers among them the President of the American Federation of Labor – Samuel Gompers, and Mary Dreier of the Women’s Trade Union League. The workers were urged to join the union and put an end to their exploitation. In the midst of all the admirable speeches a girl worker – Clara Lemlich by name, got up and shouted “Mr. Chairman, we are tired of listening to speeches. I move that we go on strike now!” and other workers got up and said “We are starving while we work, we may as well starve while we strike.” Pendimonium [sic] broke lose [sic] in the hall. Shouts, cheering, applause, confusion and shouting of “strike, strike” was heard not only in the hall but outside as well. There were many workers who could not get into the hall. There were no loud-speakers in those days, but word was carried to them and they joined in the cry for a strike. As one of them said, “Why not, we have nothing to lose and we may have something to gain.”
It was the 22nd of November when the strike was called. I remember the day – a grey sky, chilly winds and the winter just around the corner. However, neither the cold wind nor the cloudy sky prevented the strikers from cheering their own courage and daring as they left shop after shop to join their co-workers on the streets of New York. Despair turned to hope – marching from virtual slavery to the promise of freedom and decency. Five thousand, ten thousand, twenty thousand filled every hall available. That day was indeed a red letter day for the strikers and for the union. On this day young women laid the foundation for the powerful, constructive and influential union in the American Labor Movement, the ILGWU. As women they never did get the credit for what they contributed to the building of the present structure known all over the world as the most progressive labor organization in existence. That, however, did not prevent them from proving (and in those days to prove was essential) that women without experience can and did rise from their slumber to fight for a happier existence with determination and without fear.
During the weeks and months of the strike most of them would go hungry. Many of them would find themselves without a roof above their heads. All of them would be cold and lonely. But all of them also knew and understood that their own courage would warm them; that hope for a better life would feed them; that fortitude would shelter them; that their fight for a better life would lift their spirit. They were ready and willing to endure hardship of any kind until victory was in sight. And fight they did.