November 29, 1909: A Frail 23 Year Old Woman Ignites the Strike of the 20,000 at Cooper Union
On November 22, 1909, a frail 23-year-old woman, who’d been brutally beaten by strike-breakers, was helped up onto the stage of the Great Hall at the Cooper Union.
Leaders of the labor movement – all men – had been speaking for hours to a crowd of thousands, speaking out against poor garment factory working conditions while also preaching caution when it came to a strike. Then, they were interrupted by “the frail little girl with flashing black eyes,” as Clara Lemlich was described by Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor, who was on stage that day. She said simply (in Yiddish): “I have listened to all the speakers. I would not have further patience for talk, as I am one of those who feels and suffers from the things pictured. I move that we go on a general strike!”
Gompers’s account continues: “As the tremulous voice of the girl died away, the audience rose en masse and cheered her to the echo. A grim sea of faces, with high purpose and resolve, they shouted and cheered the declaration of war for living conditions hoarsely.” The attendees took a traditional Jewish oath of solidarity, then and there, affirming: “If I turn traitor to the cause I now pledge, may my hand wither from the arm I now raise.” And so began the “Uprising of the 20,000,” a critical turning point in American labor activism which extended from November 1909 to February 1910.
GVSHP has written about Clara Lemlich’s involvement in suffrage movements, as a way that NYC remembers the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire with the Clara Lemlich Award, and her role in NYC labor movements. We have recounted Clara’s birth in Russia (now Ukraine), her immigration with her family in 1904, and her home at 278 E 3rd Street (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). You can see the location where she lived on GVSHP’s Civil Rights and Social Justice Map.
Clara was one of the thousands of young immigrant women working in the city’s garment industry, based in present-day NoHo and the Lower East Side. Conditions were dismal, including overcrowding, pittance wages, long hours.
The Great Hall at the Cooper Union was, also in 1909, the site of the first public meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People – the NAACP. It hosted public intellectuals from Henry James and Mark Twain to William Styron and Salman Rushdie, along with seven serving or future U.S. Presidents, including Barack Obama. Clara Lemlich’s short speech in the Great Hall had a lynchpin effect in her movement, though she was no stranger to putting herself in controversial, dangerous places. She had been involved in several strikes prior to her lynchpin speech. “Every strike we called was broken by the police and gangsters hired by the bosses,” she recalled in 1965.
The 1909 strike, sparked by Clara’s speech at the Cooper Union, brought attention to the plight of workers, and women workers specifically. Between 20,000 and 30,000 workers went on strike, and were soon joined by strikers in other cities around the country. Although many of the workers were Jewish like Clara, other ethnic groups and cultures were represented, including Italian and African-American women. In the face of police pressure, the Women’s Trade Union League stepped up to lend a hand in the fight. As the strike wore on, Lemlich continued to lead and inspire, along with Emma Goldman and many others. These women made it clear to leaders of the labor movement that the needs of women workers must be addressed within the movement’s agenda and negotiations.
The Uprising of the 20,000 did win some basic workplace reforms, but many of the strikers’ demands were ignored. Tragically, one of the companies that ignored these reforms was the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. Two years later, their factory on the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place became the site of one of the deadliest industrial disasters in U.S. history when it caught fire, killing 143 garment workers.
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 in 1911, seeking to unite labor and women’s movements to achieve suffrage.