As we celebrate Labor Day by taking a day off from the workplace tyranny of ergonomic chairs, plentiful fire exits, climate-controlled rooms and a five-day workweek, let’s take a moment to pay homage to the people who put such amenities into place: courageous early Jewish American labor activists like Clara Lemlich.
In 1909 most American Jews, like most immigrants at the time, found themselves in the garment industry. The work entailed cutting and sewing clothing in Lower East Side “sweatshops” — so-called not because it was sweaty work, but after the English term “sweated,” meaning doing tedious work for low wages. Working conditions were abysmal. Fifteen-hour days and six-day workweeks were common, along with unsafe working conditions, abusive supervisors, and no job security. But for immigrants with no money and no English-language skills, there was little else.
However, a generation of Jewish activists was demanding change. Rooted in collectivist thought and political action, these otherwise poor and powerless Yiddish-speakers had by 1888 already formed a labor movement (the United Hebrew Trades) and were marching for an eight-hour workday. The American Federation of Labor also sprouted up, with Dutch-Sephardic powerhouse Samuel Gompers at the helm. And in November 1909, when thousands of female garment workers gathered at Cooper Union to discuss their intolerable working conditions, a 23-year old Ukrainian immigrant named Clara Lemlich started a workers’ revolution.
Clara’s family had fled Ukraine seven years earlier amid anti-Semitic violence. In New York she’d found work at a shirtwaist factory, where women were reduced “to the status of machines,” she’d written as a 17-year old. Outraged, Clara joined her local chapter of the new International Ladies Garment Worker Union (ILGWU), where she led picket lines and wrote op-eds. For her activism, she’d been arrested and beaten by police, yet she remained fearless. At the garment workers’ meeting, Clara spoke passionately to the crowd. “I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in general terms,” she declared in Yiddish. “What we are here for is to decide whether we shall strike or shall not strike. I offer a resolution that a general strike be declared now!” There was a roar of agreement.
The very next morning began a massive strike of mostly Jewish and Italian women, later known as the “Uprising of the Twenty Thousand.” Their brave stand, which lasted four months, won important concessions from several factories for fair wages and shorter hours, and paved the way for even greater gains. Thanks to the contributions of Clara Lemlich and her fellow protestors and activists, American sweatshops became a thing of the past and, with better wages and protections, our immigrant forebears were able to get a foothold in the economy to begin their climb toward their American dream.