Money  /  Explainer

How Poor, Mostly Jewish Immigrants Organized 20,000 and Fought for Workers Rights

These women came ready to fight.
Kheel Center/Wikimedia

In turn-of-the-century New York City, a third of the working class was employed in the textile industry. More than half of the nation’s clothes were made in a small wedge of Manhattan known as the Garment District, and the people who made them were mostly Jewish immigrant women. They worked in multistory sweatshops that were as crowded, unsanitary, and unsafe as the rickety tenements they went home to.

In 1909, these women went on strike, demanding higher pay, better working conditions, and union recognition. They won some of their demands, but they lost an important one: ending the policy of locking workers inside factories. If they’d succeeded, great tragedy might have been averted.

Working conditions in the garment industry had been atrocious from the start. As early as the 1850s, women who sewed clothes by hand in the Garment District were widely known to be abused by employers, their fingers worked to the bone for starvation wages. Sympathetic middle- and upper-class women provided charity to poor seamstresses and advocated on their behalf, insisting that society could not abide “the wretchedness of needlewomen.” But the textile workers themselves had no unions or collective institutions, so they remained at the whim of employers.

That is, until a new crop of women arrived from a place with a tradition of working-class militancy. In the early 1900s, pogroms swept Eastern Europe, causing a wave of Jewish immigration to New York City. Many of the new arrivals were very young. By the end of the first decade, about half of the workers in the garment industry were under 20 years old. They were teenagers, and they were poor, but they had one advantage: they were organized, in large part because they came from places like Poland, Russia, and Lithuania, where their families had been members of the Labor Bund, a secular Jewish socialist party with heavy union representation. So these women workers knew a thing or two about standing up to bosses, bargaining collectively, and playing on a businessman’s biggest fear: lost revenue.

One of these women was Clara Lemlich, an immigrant whose family had fled anti-Semitic violence in the small Ukrainian village where she was born. She’d arrived in New York City a few years earlier and had quickly secured not only employment but membership in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU). It wasn’t long before she was frequenting picket lines and, though only 23, was voted into a leadership role in the union. At a labor movement convention in November of 1909, several unionists spoke with concern about the conditions of women textile workers, a few of whom were already engaged in a small strike. Lemlich, herself one of those workers, decided to do something about it. She stood up and declared in Yiddish:

I have listened to all the speakers, and I have no further patience for talk. I am a working girl, one of those striking against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in generalities. What we are here for is to decide whether or not to strike. I make a motion that we go out in a general strike.

The crowd roared with excitement, and the strike was on.