Strikes and Unions (Module #2)
This module is intended for use with the game Jewish Time Jump: New York and can also stand alone. It introduces students to:
- the realities of working conditions in garment factories,
- the experiences of labor union members and factory owners, and
- the strategies and reasons why both workers and factory owners organized to reach their goals.
SPOILER ALERT: To avoid spoiling some aspects of the game, parts 1 & 2 of this module should be completed before playing Jewish Time Jump: New York. The document studies in part 3 and your choice of the activities below should be saved for after game play.
- Working conditions in many early 20th century garment factories were often unfair or dangerous to workers.
- Employers have to balance the financial interests of business with the needs of their employees.
- Workers and employers both organized to make change based on their interests.
- There are both opportunities and risks involved with making change.
- How did the experiences of Jewish workers shape their actions?
- What are the opportunities and risks involved with joining a union or going on strike?
- How did the experiences of Jewish factory owners shape their actions?
- How did both workers and employers organize within their communities to make change?
Notes to Teacher
Each section of the lesson outline includes instructions for alternate activities to help you adapt the material for students at different reading levels and groups of various sizes. If you have feedback—positive or constructive—after teaching this content, please let us know.
From Suffering to Action, From the Individual to the Collective
Introductory Essay for Jewish Time Jump: New York, Module 2.
SPOILER ALERT: This essay contains spoilers for the game Jewish Time Jump: New York. It also provides background information you may find useful as you lead students through both the lesson and the game.
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 risked both their lives and their jobs and came together to demand their rights to better working conditions, better pay, and union membership.
Working conditions in sweatshops and garment factories at the turn of the 20th century were dangerous and demeaning even in the best cases, and brutal at worst. 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 for doing the same jobs. Many workers were paid in tickets rather than money—small slips of paper that were easily lost (workers didn’t always have pockets) or ruined. Without the tickets, workers had nothing to redeem in order to receive payment for work completed.
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 compelling. Workers who went on strike were not paid, and thus were not always able to pay for rent or heat, or to buy food. 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 20th century.
These 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 they would experience greater freedom and better conditions. Some immigrants—both Jews and non–Jews—had already encountered radical political movements in Europe and were therefore already open to ideas like unionization and Socialism when they arrived in America.
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 Parties. 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”: trade and area–specific groups that would negotiate with shop and factory bosses and owners about working conditions.
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 (who appears in Jewish Time Jump: New York) to organize women workers. During strikes, members of the WTUL also joined the girls and women on picket lines, since 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 garment workers’ strike of 1909–1910 thus 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.” (This moment is highlighted in the game Jewish Time Jump: New York.) 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. The strike also catalyzed labor activism and the growth of union membership in New York and across the country. For the young women involved in the strike, it was a powerful experience that proved their worth and their resolve; 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 Shirtwaist Co., and on Saturday, March 25, 1911, it became the site of one of the worst industrial disasters in US history. Near the end of the workday, 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 exits 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 where 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 (who appears in Jewish Time Jump: New York), 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 outlining fire safety measures and protecting women and children workers.
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.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire tragedy is still commemorated annually by many different groups. Considered the worst workplace 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.
Source: Adapted from Rosenbaum, Judith and Lori Shaller. “From Suffering to Action. From the Individual to the Collective: Introductory Essay.” in Living the Legacy.
Part 1: How Do I Make Change?
(Complete before playing Jewish Time Jump: New York)
(30–45 minutes, depending on which activity you choose)
- Hand out the “Making Change” worksheet and ask students to take a few quiet minutes thinking about a time they tried to change something in their home, school, or community.
- Encourage students to jot down notes, write full sentences, or draw pictures to help them think about the questions. Be sure to explain that they will have the opportunity to share their story, but that they will not be handing in the worksheet.
- Ask students to share their responses/stories. Make a two-column chart to capture what students wanted to change and how they made change.
Alternative Methods for Making Change Activity
Method 1: Think-Pair-Share
Rather than asking students to share with the large group, have students draw or write their responses and then share with a partner first. After students have shared, ask for volunteers to report their partner’s story to the group. Record responses in the chart as described above.
Method 2: Interview
Ask students to use the questions on the worksheet to interview someone else about how they made change. This could be another student, a teacher, a volunteer, a parent, a rabbi, etc. You could conduct the interview as a whole class, in pairs, or individually. This could be part of classwork, or you could assign it as homework.
Part 2: Learning from Others’ Experiences
(Complete before playing Jewish Time Jump: New York)
- On a whiteboard, chalkboard, or piece of large paper, make a chart with four columns titled “Working Conditions,” “Reasons Workers Stayed,” “Questions,” and “Our Advice for Pauline.”
- Ask a student (or students) to read the first two paragraphs of the excerpt from Pauline Newman’s unpublished memoir about the monotony and hardships of working in a factory. (You may wish to provide copies for each student so they can read along.)
- Then, ask students: What was it like to work in the Triangle Factory? What are the major problems that Pauline Newman faced? List (or have a student scribe) their responses in the “Working Conditions” column.
- Next, have another student read the third paragraph of the excerpt from Pauline Newman’s unpublished memoir aloud.
- Ask the students to list the reasons why workers stayed in their jobs. List (or have a student scribe) their responses in the “Reasons Workers Stayed” column.
- Then, have students discuss the following questions as a large group, capturing their responses in the appropriate column:
- If you could ask Pauline Newman a question, what would it be?
- How would you advise her to act?
Alternative Methods for Exploring the Working Conditions Document
Method 1: Performance or Video
Dress up (or have a parent or teen volunteer dress up) as Pauline Newman and perform the paragraphs rather than having students read them aloud. You could also make a video of yourself (or someone else) doing this, or provide an audio recording students can follow along with as they read.
Method 2: Small Group Work
Instead of a large group discussion at the end, divide the students into pairs or small groups and answer the questions themselves before recording/reporting back their responses for the whole class.
Part 3: Digging Deeper: Document Studies
(Complete after playing Jewish Time Jump: New York)
(40 minutes—20 to read and 20 to report back)
- Break the class into four groups; each group will examine one document:
- Group One will read the excerpt from Pauline Newman’s unpublished memoir, in which she recalls the beginning of the 1909 garment worker’s strike. Note: This document contains a quote that is a plot spoiler for Jewish Time Jump: New York. Please use this document only after game play.
- Group two will read the first excerpt, about the cost of unions, from factory owner Louis Borgenicht’s memoir.
- Group three will read the second excerpt, about a union strike, from factory owner Louis Borgenicht’s memoir.
- Group four will read some information about why manufacturers created an association to protect their interests.
- Each group should assign one note taker and one reporter.
- Ask students to read their text one paragraph at a time, restating what the paragraph said in their own words and clarifying vocabulary.
- Once they have read the passage, students should discuss the questions that accompany their document.
- After discussing the questions, the group should help the note taker write down the answers to three questions:
- Whose perspective is represented in your document?
- What were their goals?
- What action did they take to protect their interests or change their circumstances?
- Once all of the groups finish with their documents, come back together as a class and have the reporter from each group share about the document they read.
Alternative Methods for Doing the Document Study
Method 1: Fewer Documents
For smaller groups, shorter classes, or to have less reading, use only two documents: Pauline Newman’s memoir excerpt (representing a worker’s perspective) and one of the excerpts from Louis Borgenicht’s memoir (representing a factory owner’s perspective).
Method 2: Large Group
Rather than having each group record their responses to the three summarizing questions, come together as a large group for discussion and record the answers together.
Method 3: Jigsaw
You may choose to use the jigsaw method for the report back at the end. To do this, create new groups, making sure that each group has at least one person who studied each document. In this method, each person should take notes so they are prepared to present to another small group.
Method 4: Read About Employers Only
If time is very limited, you may choose to simply study one or two documents representing the factory owner’s perspective to complement the excerpt from Pauline Newman’s memoir about working conditions that is used in Part 1 of the lesson plan.
Part 4: Demonstrating Understanding
(Complete after playing Jewish Time Jump: New York)
(30 minutes–1 hour, depending on how much time you give students to work on their projects.)
- There are two options (below) for closing activities. Educators may choose to assign one activity or allow students to decide which they would like to do. Educators may also choose whether to have students work individually or in groups.
- Explain the activity to students and answer any questions they have.
- Allow students at least 20 minutes to work on their piece.
- Educators should decide whether to have students present their work to the class, to one another in small groups, in pairs, or not at all.
- Selling Your Agenda: Divide class into two groups or let students choose which group they would like to represent.
- Group #1 represents the union. Give this group the documents from this lesson that represent the unions’ perspectives along with the Selling Your Agenda: Unions handout. Students will design a poster, brochure, flyer, or website addressing the prompts.
- Group #2 represents the factory owners. Give this group the documents from this lesson that represent the factory owners’ perspectives along with the Selling Your Agenda: Factory Owners handout. Students will design a poster, brochure, flyer, or website addressing the prompts.
- Convincing Others: Divide class into two groups or let students choose which group they would like to represent.
- Group #1 represents a factory owners’ association. Give this group the documents from this lesson that represent the factory owners’ perspectives along with the Convincing Others: Factory Owners handout. Students will write and deliver a speech addressing four questions.
- Group #2 represents a union. Give this group the documents from this lesson that represent the workers/union members’ perspectives along with the Convincing Others: Unions handout. Students will write and deliver a speech addressing four questions.
- Selling Your Agenda: Divide class into two groups or let students choose which group they would like to represent.
Excerpt from Pauline Newman’s Unpublished Memoir Describing the Hardships and Monotony of Garment Work (Modified)
Background: At age 11, Pauline Newman (a recent immigrant from Lithuania) got a job working in the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, a year–round position that ensured she would have work and income to help support her family. Here, Pauline discusses the working conditions at the Triangle Shirtwaist Co.
As I said before, the job was not strenuous. It was tedious. Since our day began early we were often hungry for sleep. …There were … deductions from our meager wages if and when you were five minutes late—so often due to transportation delays; there was the constant watching you, lest you pause for a moment from your work; (rubber heels had just come into use and you rarely heard the foreman or the employer sneak up behind you, watching.)
You were watched when you went to the lavatory and if in the opinion of the forelady you stayed a minute or two longer than she thought you should have you were threatened with being fired; there was the searching of your purse or any package you happen to have lest you may have taken a bit of lace or thread …
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 …
tedious: Too long, slow, or dull. Boring and usually repetitive.
Source: Pauline Newman, Pauline Newman papers, Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe. Box 1, folder 3, pp. 14–17, 20–21.
Excerpt from Pauline Newman’s Unpublished Memoir Describing the Beginning of the 1909 Garment Workers’ Strike (Modified)
Background: On November 22, 1909, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union gathered at Cooper Union to discuss going on a strike. Many prominent leaders spoke to offer their support, but also cautioned the working union members that a strike might be too risky or too dangerous.
… 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.
… 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.
pandemonium: Wild or noisy disorder, confusion, or uproar.
[sic]: When an author spells a word wrong in a primary source, the text is left as it was in the original document and historians or editors use [sic] to note that it was spelled incorrectly in the original.
Source: Pauline Newman, Pauline Newman papers, Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe. Box 1, folder 3, pp. 17, 23–24.
Discussion Questions about Pauline Newman’s Recollections of the Beginning of the 1909 Garment Workers’ Strike
- What were the conditions that caused some workers to organize?
- Why did some workers not want to join unions?
- What are the opportunities and risks of going on strike?
- When you learned about Clara Lemlich’s speech in the game, how did you feel? How do you think the workers at Cooper Union felt when they heard Clara Lemlich speak up?
Factory Owner Louis Borgenicht Discusses the Costs of Unions
Background: In this excerpt, Jewish factory owner Louis Borgenicht describes the effects of unionization on his business and personal life. According to his memoir, he was one of the first and few factory owners in the girls’ clothing industry to willingly let his workers unionize.
My working conditions were always up to the best in the industry. Nevertheless, once the union was admitted—and cheerfully—I found a new spirit undermining the old sense of co–operation. Hard feelings for me were encouraged as a deliberate policy. If a cutter did a good day’s work—as some bewildered old–fashioned workers reported—new employees approached him with warnings that he was setting too high a standard of work for the rest.
The first time I heard myself depicted as an enemy of the workers I laughed. I was a worker myself, and always had been. But it was no laughing matter I soon learned.
When a check-up revealed that, paying the same wages and working the same hours as previously, we had fallen far off our production schedule since signing up with the union—in some departments we were getting only sixty per cent of the quota of work—it was time to call a halt…“Either get the other manufacturers to sign up,” I insisted to the union leaders, “so that our labor costs are equalized, or I will have to dispense with the union myself!”
Source: Friedman, Harold. The Happiest Man: The Life of Louis Borgenicht As Told to Harold Friedman. G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1942. pp. 309–310
Discussion Questions about Factory Owner Louis Borgenicht Discussing the Costs of Unions
- How did Louis Borgenicht treat his employees? Why do you think he felt this way?
- According to his memoir, how did the union change the work ethic of Louis Borgenicht's employees?
- What were the factors Louis Borgenicht needed to consider when deciding whether or not to allow the union to organize in his shop? Which do you think were most important to him?
Factory owner Louis Borgenicht Describes a Union Strike in His Shop (Modified)
Background: Louis Borgenicht kicked the union out of his shop because he felt the union made him less able to compete with other manufacturers. He gave his employees the choice to stay—non–unionized but at the same wages and hours—or leave and find other work. In this excerpt, he describes a strike that was called in his factory as a result of this decision.
Within twenty–four hours a picket line was thrown around the plant. As if to lend spice to it, it was led, actually, by a young cousin of mine whom I had brought over from Europe at his own piteous request. I had reared this boy in my own home and, when he asked for a job, I had placed him in my own office. It was hardly a pleasant feeling to have to pass him every morning, and to listen impotently to his denunciations of me as a swine and an oppressor.
After the first few days “gorillas” visited the homes of the people who were still at work. [In order to keep our employees safe, we resorted] to keeping our employees in nearby hotels, or in the plant itself … no more than a makeshift [plan]. For six weeks I held out, always with the condition that I would sign up again if the other manufacturers did. The union was not concerned with the others. Threats to life came with increasing frequency; our business was reduced to running on one wheel. We gave in.
Again there was no change in wages or conditions. It was purely a matter of union recognition. All the strikers came back, even that fine lad from abroad.
gorillas: In this case, gorillas were people who supported the union who harassed workers who did not support the strike. People who worked even when there was a strike in a shop were called “scabs.”
Source: Friedman, Harold. The Happiest Man: The Life of Louis Borgenicht As Told to Harold Friedman. G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1942. p. 310
Discussion Questions about Factory Owner Louis Borgenicht Describing a Union Strike in His Shop
- What factors contributed to Louis Borgenicht’s decision to give in to the union?
- At the end of the excerpt, Louis Borgenicht states: “Again there was no change in wages or conditions. It was purely a matter of union recognition. All the strikers came back, even that fine lad from abroad.” What does he mean by this? Do you think the workers felt like they had “won” or reached their goals? Why or why not?
Richard A. Greenwald
Historian Richard A. Greenwald Describes How Factory Owners Organized (Modified)
Background: Just two days into the “Uprising of the 20,000,” many small factories agreed to union demands. About 70 large factories, however, refused to accept the union or make changes to their rules for workers. The following is a modified excerpt from a secondary source describing how these larger factory owners responded.
Rather than go it alone or attempt to negotiate with the union, the owners of the Triangle, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, circulated a letter in early November to all shirtwaist manufacturers suggesting the formation of an Employers Mutual Protective Association “in order to prevent this irresponsible union in gain[ing] the upper hand…[and] dictating to us the manner of conducting our business.” […]
Following Triangle’s call, the new Association of Waist and Dress Manufacturers … met…The organization further called for all manufacturers who had already signed contracts [with unions] to openly break them and lockout their workers. […]
Larger shops, such as the Triangle, were able to fight the union effectively by:
- Moving production to factories outside of New York
- Subcontracting work to smaller shops that had already settled with the union
- Having enough resources to wait out the strikers [who desperately needed their jobs and wages back]
lockout: When factory owners would literally lock the doors of a factory and not allow workers to come to work.
subcontract: When a large company pays a smaller company or an individual to do work that is part of a larger project.
Source: Greenwald, Richard A. The Triangle Fire, the Protocols of Peace, and Industrial Democracy in Progressive Era New York. pp. 33–34. Some language has been modified from the original version to be more accessible to lower–level readers.
Discussion Questions about How Factory Owners Organized
- How did the factory owners respond to the striking workers?
- What did the factory owners mean when they said they were forming an association “to prevent this irresponsible union [from] dictating to us the manner of conducting our business?”
- How do you think the factory owners felt about the workers who were organizing the strikes in their factories?
- Do you think the factory owners’ responses were effective? Why or why not?
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Strikes and Unions (Module #2)." (Viewed on September 24, 2023) <https://jwa.org/teach/jewishtimejump/strikes-and-unions>.