The American labor movement was shaped by the activism of immigrant workers, and few played as prominent a role as the young Jewish women who worked in the garment industry of the early 20th century. On November 23, 1909, between 20,000 and 40,000 girls and women working in the 600 shirtwaist (blouse) factories in New York City got up from their machines in factories and sweatshops, walked out onto the city’s streets, and went on strike. In what became known as the “Uprising of the 20,000”—still the largest strike of women workers in American history—girls and women from diverse backgrounds came together to demand their rights to better working conditions, better pay, and union membership. Risking their jobs, arrest and possible deportation, rough physical treatment on the picket line at the hands of thugs hired by their bosses to teach them a lesson, and the scorn and wrath of their families, these women, nevertheless, went out on strike.
Working conditions in sweatshops and garment factories at the turn of the 20th century were brutal in the worst cases, dangerous and demeaning in the best cases. The forty hour work week did not exist at this time; garment industry laborers regularly worked fourteen hour days, six days a week, and hours could be added on Sundays during peak work seasons. There was neither a minimum wage nor overtime pay, and girls and women were regularly paid less than men were paid for doing the same jobs. Wages were deducted for late arrival, broken machinery, going to the bathroom without permission, not completing enough work in the time allotted even when the workers were forced to produce at a break-neck pace, and for other reasons beyond the control of the worker. Despite their meager wages, workers often had to provide their own machinery and supplies (such as thread).
There were no laws to protect children in the workplace. Little ones as young as six years old could be found snipping loose threads and sewing labels into finished garments. The Department of Labor was only created in 1913, and there was no Occupational Safety and Health Administration overseeing conditions in the workplace. Lighting was poor. Sanitation was poor. The heat was unbearable in the summer, and the shops and factories were cold in the winter. Exits were locked. The noise was deafening. Sexual abuse was common but rarely reported and even more rarely punished.
These were all good reasons to go out on strike, but the reasons not to strike were equally as compelling. How would the girls and women feed themselves and help to support their families if they were not working? If the strike did not succeeed, they might be fired from their jobs, and they might earn a reputation as a troublemaker and be blacklisted or prevented from working in other shops and factories. They could be arrested, labeled "radical," and even deported! If their parents or husbands disagreed with the strike, they could risk losing their families. Yet they went out on strike not just in 1909, but repeatedly in the first and second decades of the twentieth century.
For some, the lack of respect they received from the bosses was what pushed these women to go out on strike. In some shops, they were not allowed to talk to each other while they worked. They were allowed to go to the bathroom only during formal breaks. They were searched on their way out of work each day to be sure they hadn’t stolen anything. These humiliations endured day after day wore down the workers.
The Jewish girls and women connected their oppression in the workplace to the political oppression that had inspired their families to leave Europe and come to America, believing that in America they would experience greater freedom and better conditions. Some immigrants had already encountered radical political movements in Europe and were therefore already open to ideas like unionization and Socialism when they arrived in America. Some garment workers from other ethnic groups shared this background of political oppression in their countries of origin. Jewish women also carried the collective memory of the history of Jewish oppression to which they connected their own suffering. Many of the strikers believed in the possibility of change in America, and they believed they could help bring about the betterment of their conditions through labor activism.
Before the Uprising of the 20,000, Jewish women had organized boycotts and rent strikes to protest hikes in food prices and living expenses. Some of the women learned organizing skills from their involvement in the Socialist or Communist Party. Women in the garment shops began to talk with one another about their plight and about ways the union could help them. The labor unions were not interested in helping the women workers and did not take them seriously, assuming they were not invested in their work because they would soon leave the factory to marry and have families. So, without much support from the union leaders, the women began to organize themselves into “locals,” or trade and area-specific groups that would speak to shop and factory bosses and owners about working conditions for all the workers.
The garment workers were also supported by the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL), an organization founded in 1903 by middle- and upper-class women interested in helping working-class women improve their lives. The WTUL hired the young garment worker Rose Schneiderman to organize women workers. During strikes, members of the WTUL also joined the girls and women on picket lines, since the police and hired thugs were less likely to beat up a well-dressed woman, and their presence—and the media attention it drew—helped protect the working class women from violence.
The Jewish press also supported the workers during the strike. Articles in the Forward, a Socialist Yiddish paper, for example, underscored the strikers’ courage and exposed the harsh treatment they were receiving from the police.
The garment workers’ strike of 1909-1910 was not a spontaneous uprising. Rather, it grew out years of organizing women in the garment industry, as well as a series of smaller strikes throughout the summer and fall of 1909. By early November, it was unclear if and how the strikes would go forward. International Ladies Garment Workers’ Local 25 called for a general strike to shut down the entire shirtwaist industry, and on November 22, thousands of garment workers attended a meeting at Cooper Union to discuss this recommendation. After many labor leaders spoke without advocating for a general strike, 23-year-old Clara Lemlich—one of the strike leaders and a member of the Local 25 executive committee—took the stage and declared, “I am a working girl, one of those who are on strike against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in general terms. What we are here to decide is whether we shall or shall not strike. I offer a resolution that a general strike be declared—now.” Her bold words energized the women in the crowd, and they pledged to strike.
The strike lasted 11 weeks, and while it was not a complete victory, it did win some significant demands. Most of the garment shops agreed to a 52-hour-week, at least four holidays with pay per year, no charge for tools and materials, no discrimination against union members, and the right for unions to negotiate wages with employers. By the end of the strike, 85% of all shirtwaist makers in New York had joined the ILGWU, and Local 25 had grown from 100 members to more than 10,000. Perhaps most importantly, the uprising proved that women workers could be organized into a powerful force, and it sparked five years of strikes that turned the garment industry into one of the best-organized trades in the U.S. For the young women involved in the strike, it was a powerful experience that proved their worth and mettle; many of them considered it one of the defining moments of their lives.
Unfortunately, one of the factories that did not meet the strikers’ demands for better working conditions was the Triangle Waist Co., and on Saturday, March 25, 1911, it became the site of one of the worst industrial disasters in New York’s history. Near the end of the work day, a fire broke out in the factory and spread quickly. Although the (Jewish) owners of the company had been cited several times for violation of the city's fire safety code, they had simply paid the fines and continued operating. On the day of the fire, about 500 workers were present. Most of the escape exists were locked, in order to prevent theft and walkouts and to keep out union organizers. The fire engine ladders were not tall enough to reach the top floors on which workers were trapped, and blankets and nets held by bystanders collapsed under the weight of the many workers who jumped. Others simply burned to death inside the factory. Of the 146 victims, most were Jewish immigrant women between the ages of 16 and 23.
The scale of the tragedy provoked widespread grief and outrage and galvanized the Jewish community and the progressive public into action. In the wake of public protest, the New York State Committee on Safety was established. Among its participants were forerunners of the New Deal, including Frances Perkins, Henry L. Stimson, and Henry Morgenthau, Sr. Following the committee’s recommendations, the New York State Legislature set up a Factory Investigating Commission which investigated work conditions in shops, factories, and tenement houses, and was instrumental in drafting new factory legislation. These measures limited the number of occupants on each factory floor relative to the dimensions of staircases, prescribed automatic sprinkler systems, and drafted employment laws to protect women and children at work.
The trial of the factory owners resulted in acquittal, and after collecting their insurance they soon reopened their shop at a new address and offered to pay one week’s wages to the families of the victims. In 1914 they were ordered by a judge to pay damages of seventy-five dollars to each of the twenty-three families of victims who had sued.
In the century since the Triangle Fire, it has remained a focus for labor activity. The tragedy is still being commemorated by annual demonstrations, by gatherings of women workers, and by union events, emphasizing the importance of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Considered the worst disaster in New York City until the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire remains one of the most vivid symbols for the American labor movement of the essential need to ensure a safe workplace environment.