Thursday, May 9, 2013

Norte: Sweatshops and the Uprising of 20,000

Katarina Norte
May 3, 2012

Sweatshops and the Uprising of 20,000
Sweatshops are a type of workshop that utilizes low wages, poor working conditions and long working days. Sweatshops have been around for many centuries, however, they became more common in the United States in the late nineteenth century to early twentieth century. They were part of a phase of economic development, enforcing the employment of lower class, immigrants, even children as a way to profit off of cheap labor. “The sweatshop, whether in a modern factory building or a dark slum cellar, exists where the employer controls the working conditions and the workers cannot protest.”1 Any worker caught protesting ran the risk of being dismissed. In one given work day there was no set amount of hours, and the worker was paid based on the amount of piecework that had been done. The majority of workers were immigrants that were easily manipulated into working for low wages.

Europe began a streak of anti- Jewish violence in many Eastern countries around the late nineteenth century. Many foreign immigrants were encouraged to move and flee to the United States to avoid this misery. Immigrants who came to America encountered numerous problems. They realized that the necessary cost of basic living needed in America was too high; many searched and took any job that was available. Due to the lack of experience or skill and the foreign language barrier, most took up jobs through the garment industry. Just about anyone can sew and little skill level is needed. The lack of communication skills made it difficult for immigrants to push for better working conditions. A company is in control of all its employees and unions had little power in the structure of companies and organizations. Workers were constantly in fear of losing their jobs and being replaced by the multitude of other immigrants.
Many had suffered until the Shirtwaist Maker’s Strike of 1909, also known as the Uprising of 20,000, where more than twenty thousand people consisting of young women began a strike in New York’s shirtwaist industry. Led by young Ukrainian immigrant, Clara Lemlich, it became the biggest strike led by women in United States history. During the meeting at New York City’s Cooper Union on November 22, 1909, Clara Lemlich, after listening to countless hours of nonsense from union leaders stood up and made her way to the podium. She made an impacting speech leading to the walkout and initiation of one of the biggest strikes in the United States. This led to fourteen weeks of nonstop strikes and protests regarding the working conditions, hours, and the low wage pay of these industries. Facing arrest and police brutality, these women suffered until their employers met their demands.
Clara Lemlich became one of the biggest union labor activists in United States history. Born in a small Ukrainian town in the year 1886, Lemlich and her family hit financial and social hardships. Having been Jewish, Lemlich was not able to attend public school because the only school in her city excluded Jews. Her family was subjected to increasing anti-Jewish violence and was soon forced to flee to the United States. Shortly after arriving in New York, just like most other immigrants, Lemlich began working in the garment industry in the Lower East Side. When Lemlich was only 17, she was already enraged with the poor working conditions of the women in the Shirtwaist Factory and she wrote that the women could be compared “to the status of machines…The regular work pays about $6 a week and the girls have to be at their machines at 7 o’clock in the morning and they stay at them until 8 o’clock at night, with just one-half hour for lunch in that time”2 These teenage girls would work all day with little break. They were forced to do a full days work and any work that was not finished or happened to be damaged in the process would be deducted from their paychecks. Lemlick also stated “At the beginning of every slow season, $2 is deducted from our salaries. We have never been able to find out what this is for”3 Girls would work non-stop and get their pay deducted without knowing what it was for.
On November 22,1909, in New York at Cooper Union, Samuel Gompers, leader of the American Federation of Labor, held a meeting to discuss the possibility of a strike.
Clara Lemlich had had enough of listening to speakers of the Local 25 stating the same caution about going on strike. She arose to the podium and made her famous speech:
I am a working girl," proclaimed Lemlich. "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 whether we shall strike or shall not strike. I offer a resolution that a general strike be declared now."4
When the speech ended thousands of men and women, a majority of them female teenagers, roared in agreement and marched right out of the meeting. This was the beginning of the Shirtwaist Makers Strike. These young women had been worn out; they were finished with hard work and little to no reward. This strike lit a match within the society and caused strikes throughout the city. The culmination of the workers was dubbed the Uprising of Twenty-Thousand. Twenty-thousand immigrants walked the streets of New York City demanding shorter hours, higher wages and better working conditions.
New York City was the economic center of the United States. 30,000 overworked garment industry employees lived within the city. Many of the teenage girls hadn’t been in a previous strike or even known what they had gotten themselves into. “Lemlich and her supporters were often physically harmed by policemen and thugs hired by factory owners. In one case Lemlich was hospitalized after a beating she received while standing in the picket line.”5 Teenagers were being physically abused, as well as emotionally, by
just peacefully protesting. Some sought out help from the Women’s Trade Union League for support and guidance for peaceful protesting. Two girls that were involved in the strike, Sue Clark and Edith Wyatt, later reported that, “We hardly knew where to go-what to do next, But one of the American girls who knew how to telephone…called the Women’s Trade Union League… Then the leader spoke to us and told us about picketing quietly and the law.”6 This helped them turn from a mob into a more organized labor movement. They continued to be abused and hospitalized but many kept with the strike and never gave up.
Fortunately, most employers were persuaded within the first few weeks and agreed to give the workers what they demanded. For each day employees didn’t work was another day lost in profits. As more companies agreed, many of the strikers joined the fairly new union, International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). The ILGWU became the most influential garment industry union for both men and women. It was able to win its members many different benefits including: higher wages, better working conditions, and also health checks. “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.7 Even though they did not get all of the needs and benefits that they desired, the ILGWU made it possible for women to return to work with less stress and under improved conditions.
The Shirtwaist Maker’s Strike led up to the evolvement of Unions and helped start strikes state-wide. Clara Lemlich and the numerous employees of the garment industry contributed to the movement towards the abolishment of sweatshops in the working class in the United States.

1 Stein, Leon. "Introduction." In Out of the sweatshop: the struggle for industrial democracy. New York: Quadrangle/New York Times Book Co., 1977. xv.

2 Lemlich, Clara. "Life In The Shop." New York Evening Journal (1909): Accessed November 28, 1909.

3 Lemlich, Clara. "Life In The Shop." New York Evening Journal (1909): Accessed November 28, 1909.

4 American Experience. "Clara Lemlich . Triangle Fire . WGBH American Experience | PBS." Accessed May 1, 2013.

5 American Experience. "Clara Lemlich . Triangle Fire . WGBH American Experience | PBS." Accessed May 3, 2013.

6 Clark, Sue A. and Wyatt, Edith "First Morning of the Strike." McClures' Magazine, November, 1910.

7 Harvard University Library: Open Collections Program: Home. "Open Collections Program: Women Working, Uprising of the 20,000." Accessed May 3, 2013.

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