Labor History in the Village

Image courtesy of 6sqft.

Some of the most important events and most prominent figures in the labor movement bear strong connections to the Village and East Village.  Without these courageous individuals, or the events connected to them, we might never have had fair wages, better working conditions, or the right to collective bargaining.  Below are a few standout homes and locations from our Civil Rights and Social Justice Map that highlight some of these pioneering individuals and impactful events from labor history in our midst.


Clara Lemlich Residence, 278 East 3rd Street

The month of March is now celebrated worldwide as Women’s History Month, but it originated right here in Greenwich Village with the New York shirtwaist strike of 1909. The first International Women’s Day was celebrated to commemorate the anniversary of the strike, and Women’s History Month is celebrated in March to correspond with this date. The New York shirtwaist strike of 1909 was led by 23 year old Clara Lemlich, who took to the stage at Cooper Union on November 22, 1909, to call for thousands of shirtwaist factory workers to go on strike to demand better working conditions and higher wages. As a garment worker, she made a name for herself among her fellow workers, leading several strikes and challenging the predominantly male leadership in the industry. Clara Lemlich was born in the Russian Empire (now Ukraine) and immigrated to the United States with her family in 1904. Census data from 1910 indicates that she lived at 278 E 3rd Street with her parents and six siblings (that tenement appears to have been combined with the adjacent tenement at 280 East 3rd Street into one building which now uses the 280 East 3rd Street address, but the original building appears to still exist behind the more modern combined façade).

Clara was one of thousands of young immigrant women working in the city’s garment industry. Before migrating to midtown in the 1920s, the garment industry was centered around present-day NoHo and Lower East Side, both crowded immigrant neighborhoods. Garment workers usually worked in terrible conditions, for long hours, and very little pay to support their families. The 1909 strike brought attention to their plight and was supported by the Women’s Trade Union League. The WTUL was founded in 1903 to support the efforts of women to organize labor unions and to eliminate sweatshop conditions. Tragically, less than two years after the strike, the deadliest industrial disaster in the country’s history occurred when 146 workers died in a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. The disaster led to legislation requiring safety standards and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), which fought for better conditions for factory workers. Clara Lemlich became involved with the ILGWU. After being blacklisted for her labor union work, she devoted herself to the campaign for women’s suffrage, founding the Wage Earner’s Suffrage League, a working-class alternative to middle-class suffrage organizations.

Emma Goldman Residence, 208 East 13th Street

Emma Goldman

Born in Kovno, Lithuania (then a part of the Russian Empire) in 1869, Emma Goldman was a political activist and writer who supported a wide range of controversial causes, including free speech, birth control, women’s equality, union organization, and workers’ rights. The Federal Bureau of Investigation considered her one of the most dangerous women in the country. She moved to the United States with her sister and lived worked in Rochester, New York. In 1889 she left Rochester (and a husband) for New York City. Here she met prominent anarchists Johann Most and Alexander Berkman. Goldman and Berkman would form a lifelong relationship, as both friends and lovers.

In 1903, she moved into the tenement at 208 East 13th Street. It was here where she published a monthly periodical, Mother Earth, that served as a forum for anarchist ideas and a venue for radical artists and writers. The Mother Earth magazine hosted a Masquerade Ball at Webster Hall in 1906, which was broken up by the police. Goldman continued her activism, and was arrested in 1917 for protesting the draft. In 1919, she was deported to Russia with approximately 250 other alien radicals.

The Masses, 91 Greenwich Avenue

From 1913 until 1917, ‘The Masses’, a radical magazine that blended art and politics, was published monthly at 91 Greenwich Avenue (the building has since been demolished). Founded in 1911 by Piet Vlag, a socialist immigrant from the Netherlands, the publication moved to this location in 1913. The magazine was edited by Max Eastman, founder of the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage and often called the most famous radical in America. Contributors included influential figures of the day, such as John Reed (who would go on to write Ten Days That Shook the World), Mary Heaton Vorse (the premier labor journalist of her time), Carl Sandburg, Upton Sinclair, Sherwood Anderson, Dorothy Day, Helen Keller, Amy Lowell, John Sloan, and Robert Henri. They all infused ‘The Masses’ with an overwhelming enthusiasm for social justice and change. The magazine supported progressive positions on issues like unionization and ending sweatshop labor, freedom of speech, racial equality, reproductive rights, and women’s suffrage.

The Masses reported on most major labor struggles of the day such as the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike of 1912 (a coal miners’ strike in West Virginia), the Patterson Silk strike of 1913 (a work stoppage involving silk mill workers in New Jersey), and the Ludlow, Colorado massacre of 1914 (an attack on coal miners and their families by the Colorado National Guard). After the passage of the Espionage Act, which prohibited interference with foreign relations, the magazine attempted to comply with the new regulations in order to remain eligible for shipment by the U.S. Postal Service. Despite the attempts, the government identified “treasonable material” in the August 1917 issue and brought charges against Eastman and several of his colleagues. They went to trial, twice, but with jurors unable to reach a verdict, both ended in a mistrial. Though Eastman and his colleagues at ‘The Masses’ were not convicted, the November/December issue would be the magazine’s last. Despite having been suppressed a century ago, ‘The Masses’ continues to serve as an example for other radical publications.

Labor Lyceum, 64 East 4th Street

The building at 64 E 4th Street (visible to the right in the historic photo) was once home to the Labor Lyceum, which was a center for workers’ classes, lectures, and social gatherings. It housed ‘The Volkszeitung’, a German language workers’ newspaper. It was also where the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union was founded in 1900. In 1910, the largest labor strike in the U.S. to date began here, when the Int’l Ladies’ Garment Workers Union descended upon the building as a part of the Cloakworkers strike. Just one of many locations in New York City with ties to Labor History, the building now houses the IATI Theater, a performing arts venue featuring Latino theater, music, dance, and workshops.


Webster Hall, 125 East 11th Street

In its early years, Webster Hall developed a reputation as a center of leftist, anarchist, and union political activity. By the 1910s and 1920s, it had become famous for its masquerade balls which attracted the bohemians of the Village and beyond. During prohibition it became a speakeasy. Gay and lesbian Villagers attended parties of accepting organizations like the Liberal Club. Webster Hall was designated a New York City Landmark in 2007 and according to the Landmarks Preservation Commission report, it is “one of the New York City’s most historically and culturally significant large nineteenth-century assembly halls”

 

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire site, now the Brown Building (former Asch Building), 23-29 Washington Place

On March 25, 1911, the deadliest industrial disaster in U.S. history occurred at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in the building at 23-29 Washington Place. The fire killed 146 workers, predominantly recent Jewish and Italian immigrant women aged 16 to 23. The factory was located on the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the Asch Building, now known as the Brown Building. The death toll was so high because of a common practice at the time – locking the doors to the exits to prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks. The incident led to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards and led to the development of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. Frances Perkins, a witness to the fire, dedicated her life to improving working conditions for all people, and she became the first female cabinet member when President Roosevelt appointed her Secretary of Labor in 1933. The building survived the fire, and has been designated a National Historic Landmark and a New York City Landmark.

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Matthew Morowitz