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Uprising of the 20,000

New York Shirtwaist Workers Strike, November 1909 to February 1910

In the autumn of 1909, the New York garment industry was in crisis. On one hand, the industry was booming, with consumers grabbing up ready-made clothing that was finally available to mass markets. Among the new fashions was the shirtwaist—stylish blouses cheap enough for working women to buy and wear. On the other hand, companies that made shirtwaists tried to cut wages, and this, added to other grievances, sparked a series of small strikes by the women workers who made the clothes.

In November, there was a mass meeting of workers from many different companies. Male union leaders dithered on the stage, debating what to do. Like many men in their position, they did not believe that women could be trusted with a strike. From the audience, a 15-year-old Ukraine-born Jewish woman stood up and demanded, in Yiddish, that workers take control and go on a general strike. Leading the gathered workers in a traditional Jewish oath of solidarity, Clara Lemlich started what became the Uprising of the 20,000.

Within two days, between 20,000 and 30,000 workers went on strike. A month later, workers in Philadelphia factories followed suit. Although many of the workers were Jewish, other ethnic groups and cultures were represented, including some African-American women. Facing police intimidation, the women called on the National Women's Trade Union League of America (NWTUL), with its access to funds, publicity, and the sympathy of the well-born, for help. Lending support to the garment workers helped grow the NWTUL, in addition to helping the strike. Thousands of strikers joined the decade-old International Ladies Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) ("ladies" in the union's title refers to the types of the garments, not to the gender of the workers). In February 1910, the ILGWU came to an arbitrated settlement with most of the factory owners that improved wages, conditions, and hours. While the companies still refused to recognize the union, they agreed that should there be future disputes, they would arbitrate with community leaders.

One of the companies that refused to sign the agreement was, ironically, the very factory in which Clara Lemlich worked: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. A year later, a disastrous fire at Triangle would remake the industry.

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