Chicago Garment Workers' Strike
Nationally, between 1880 and 1920, the needle trades were the third most strike-prone industry after mining and the building trades. By the end of the first decade of the 20th century, the garment industry was Chicago's third-largest employer and the single largest employer of women. Like the "Uprising of the 20,000" and subsequent strikes in Cleveland and Philadelphia, the Chicago garment workers' strike of 1910 and 1911, sometimes called the Hart, Schaffner, and Marx strike after the firm where it started, was a massive strike started and led by women in which diverse workers in the garment industry showed their ability to organize across ethnic lines in an industry notorious for low wages and bad conditions. The Chicago strike marked the start of what became the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America and began the career of Sidney Hillman as a labor leader.
On September 22, 1910, 16 women struck the major Chicago garment company Hart, Schaffner, and Marx (HSM). Although wages, hours, and conditions were all bad, the final straw for the women was the imposition of a bonus system, which allowed supervisors to play favorites with some workers, as well as a cut in the piece rate of 1/4 cent. By the end of the week, the original 16 were joined by 2,000 other women. When the United Garment Workers union (UGW) officially sanctioned the strike, 41,000 workers walked off the job. Despite this increase in strikers, many viewed the UGW's help as too little, too late, because it refused to call a general strike, but only called workers off the job at companies without contracts, and as a result, HSM was able to ship work to non-union subcontractors. As the fall progressed, the strike increasingly looked like a lost cause. In early November, the Chicago Federation of Labor and the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) urged the strikers to settle, and the UGW withdrew support in December. Workers under Sidney Hillman's leadership ratified a contract with HSM that went into effect on January 14. Other workers, the most radical of the strikers, held out until February, when the general strike was called off. As many workers as could returned to their shops, but many were refused re-employment.
Like earlier needle-trades strikes in New York, Cleveland, and Philadelphia, and the subsequent one in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the Chicago strike was notable for being cross-ethnic. Workers and organizers spoke Yiddish, Czech, Polish, Italian, Lithuanian, and English. The Chicago strike, also like the others, was also notable for being led by women; indeed, the men who controlled the UGW refused to take seriously the teenage girls who organized the strike at the beginning. But despite their youth, the women were veteran workers and often experienced WTUL organizers.
Socialists helped lead the strike in the absence of UGW support and capitalized on the youth and seeming innocence of the women strikers. Women like Nellie M. Zeh and Mary O'Reilly were local socialists who helped organize support for the strikers on neighborhood lines. They used the image of the pretty, cheerful, militant girl to win support for the strike. Zeh described one "girl striker" in the Chicago Daily Socialist: "Sweet and pretty is that laughing face, but strength of character is also shown in that it was she who took the lead in the walk-out of an entire shop."
Chicago was a center of the progressive movement, and progressives, as well as socialists, helped support the strikers. The progressive WTUL, whose supporters were often the blood relations or wives of the very capitalists the radical strikers fought, provided important support for the strike even while the UGW refused to lead. The situation was often rife with irony: Grace Abbott was once driven by Sears owner Julius Rosenwald's chauffeur to a meeting to plan a picket of a Sears factory. Sidney Hillman, who emerged as the leader of the union after the strike, succeeded because he managed to bridge the distance between the WTUL Progressives and the radical rank-and-file strikers, including his future wife, Bessie Abramowitz, whom he met during the 1919 Chicago strike.