ILGWU WorkersOn this day 96 years ago — November 22nd, 1909 — the International Ladies Garment Workers Union began a fourteen week strike of 20,000 shirtwaist makers in New York City. It was the first mass strike by U.S. women.
At a series of mass meetings on November 22, after the leading figures of the American labor movement and socialist leaders of the lower east side – Meyer London, Morris Hillquit, Joseph Barondess, and Samuel Gompers – spoke in general terms about the need for solidarity and preparedness, a teenaged worker, Clara Lemlich, rose to speak about the conditions she and other women worked under and demanded an end to talk and the calling of a strike of the entire industry. The crowd responded enthusiastically and, after taking a traditional Yiddish oath – “If I turn traitor to the cause I now pledge, may this hand wither from the arm I now raise” – voted for a general strike. Approximately 20,000 out of the 32,000 workers in the shirtwaist trade walked out in the next two days.
Those workers – primarily immigrants and mostly women – defied the preconceptions of more conservative labor leaders, who thought that immigrants and women could not be organized. Their slogan – “We’d rather starve quick than starve slow” – summed up the depth of bitterness against the sweatshops in which they worked.
The strike was a violent one: police routinely arrested picketers for trivial or imaginary offenses while employers hired local thugs to beat them as police looked the other way. The courts imposed harsh prison sentences on picketers convicted for strike-related offenses; one judge, sentencing a striker for “incitement,” shouted, “You are striking against God and Nature, whose law is that man shall earn his bread by the sweat of his brow. You are on strike against God!”
Text adapted from Wikipedia.