March 7, 1910: The accomplishments of the 30,000 women who took part in the recent strike against all of New York City’s shirtwaist manufacturers were celebrated tonight at the annual meeting of the Women’s Trade Union League.
Helen Marot summed up the gains that had been made since last year’s walkouts and discussed future efforts to expand the union movement and increase the participation of women in it.
There are now signed contracts with over 300 firms granting the shorter 52-hour workweeks demanded, increased pay, better sanitary conditions and recognition of committees of workers in the shops. In addition, all the former strikers, including the leaders, are now working again, so no one is unemployed due to having exercised their right to protest.
Meaningful gains such as these are now causing women in all trades to think about unionizing. Future organizing may be among corset makers, hat trimmers, children’s jacket makers and “white goods” workers. A more immediate—and pleasant—task, however, is promoting firms that made the most favorable settlements. The two that now put union labels on their goods will get the biggest boost.
The union has ambitious plans for empowering workers. It will give classes in English to new immigrants, as well as lessons in debating and singing. Debating skills will come in handy for mass meetings or negotiating with employers, while the singing of union songs helps promote solidarity.
This most recent battle began with a strike call last September by Local 25 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) against the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, arguably the worst employer in an industry noted for its abuses.
It is common in garment factories for workers to be required to furnish their own needles, thread, knives, irons and other necessities. Many shops even “sweat” every last penny of profit out of their workers by charging them for the use of company electricity as well as equipment, such as clothing lockers and chairs, and fining them for even the briefest tardiness or slight flaws in their work. But among the additional degradations and safety risks inflicted on those who work at Triangle are a lack of indoor bathrooms and the necessity to ask a foreman to unlock a steel door to leave the building for this “interruption of work.” All their nearly 1,000 workers answered the strike call.
The strike went citywide on the night of November 22nd, thanks to Clara Lemlich. After listening to two hours of standard speeches by noted, but somewhat cautious, male labor leaders at a mass meeting of shirtwaist workers called by the ILGWU, the young woman demanded the opportunity to speak as well.
Her impassioned recounting in Yiddish of the daily frustrations and exploitations encountered by she and her fellow workers stirred the audience at Cooper Union to enthusiastically support her call for a general strike against all shirtwaist manufacturers.
Over 20,000 of the city’s 33,000 shirtwaist workers walked off their jobs the next day, with up to 10,000 more eventually joining them. Their struggle over the next three months was extremely trying, but has obviously brought some needed changes, with hopes for more.
At first, picketers had to contend with attacks from strikebreaking thugs hired by the companies, as well as arrests by the police and sentencing by hostile judges. But growing public sympathy for the workers caused Mayor Gaynor to use his influence to end the policy of arresting pickets while ignoring violence against them.
ILGWU Local 25 has gone from 100 members to 10,000. The Women’s Trade Union League has also gained a number of new and influential supporters. There are now among its ranks 11 volunteer lawyers, 13 writers, 31 speakers and several wealthy women such as Anne Morgan and suffragist Alva Belmont prepared to contribute whatever money may be needed.
Of course, victory—even in just this one industry and in one city—is far from complete. Not all shops have signed agreements, and Triangle is still a major holdout. But the battle for the rights of women—and of all workers— will go on, energized by these recent, hard-won victories.