Clara Lemlich (later Shavelson) came with her family to New York from the Ukraine in 1905 to escape the anti-Jewish massacres that were increasing in regularity. Clara’s father could not find work, but as a young girl Clara was much more exploitable, and she was able to join the legions of young girls hired as seamstresses in the garment district.
By 1909, there were approximately six hundred clothing shops operating in New York City, employing some thirty thousand workers. Clara, 23 and a Socialist, was outraged by the long hours, low pay, lack of opportunities for advancement, unsanitary conditions, and humiliating treatment by supervisors. Seamstresses worked six and seven days a week for weekly wages of about $5, jammed into dim lofts and the backs of stores. Clara joined the Local 25 Union, becoming a member of its executive board. The Board called for a general strike to shut down production in the shirtwaist industry, and the Union called a meeting on November 22 to consider its recommendations.
A number of luminaries spoke, including Samuel Gompers and Meyer London, labor lawyer and future Socialist Party congressman. But in speech after speech, those who spoke urged caution. Frustrated after two hours, Clara demanded the floor and delivered what the press termed a “Yiddish philippic,” declaring:
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 for is to decide is whether we shall or shall not strike. I offer a resolution that a general strike be declared — now.”
With that, according to the New York World, the gathering was on it’s feet: “Everyone shouting an emphatic affirmative, waving hats, canes, handkerchiefs, anything that came handy.”
The next day, 15,000 shirtwaist makers walked out. By that evening, there were more than 20,000 on strike. It is estimated that 70 percent of the strikers were women. Dubbed the Uprising of the 20,000, it was the largest strike by women to date in American history. The American Federation of Labor was forced to revise their entrenched prejudices against organizing women.
The general strike ran from November 1909 to In February 1910. Strikers were subject to harassment and arrests. Clara herself was arrested 17 times, and had her ribs broken by gangsters hired by the employers. But she would not be intimidated and returned as soon as she was able.
While the strikers did not realize all of their demands, they did get improvements in wages, working conditions, and hours for many shops, albeit not at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Sadly, the following year, there was a fire at Triangle Shirtwaist, leading to the deaths of almost 150 garment workers, who either burned to death or died jumping to escape the flames.
Clara was blacklisted from the industry after the strike, but she did not give up her fight for the rights of women and workers generally, as well as for consumers. In fact, at the end of her life, she helped organized the nursing home staff where she was residing.