and the Clara Lemlich of today
Clara Lemlich, a 23-year-old Ukrainian immigrant, rose to a position of power in the women's labor movement, becoming the voice that incited the famous Uprising of the Twenty Thousand in 1909. Born in 1886 in the Ukrainian town of Gorodok, Lemlich grew up in a Jewish family that experienced the social upheaval and hardships defined by the declining Russian monarchy. Facing poverty and an increase in anti-Jewish violence, Lemlich's family fled Ukraine in 1903 and found a home and work in New York
Like many Jewish and Italian immigrant laborers, Lemlich joined the textile-manufacturing workforce only two weeks after arriving in New York. At the Gotham shirtwaist factory, women worked 11 hours a day, six days a week, for starting wages of $3 a week -- conditions that reduced workers "to the status of machines," wrote 17-year-old Lemlich. Appalled by these circumstances, Lemlich joined the executive board of a local chapter of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU), a relatively new organization gaining momentum in the fight for workers' rights. In that role, Lemlich led picket lines, wrote opinion pieces, and organized strikes to improve factory conditions. 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.
On November 22nd, 1909, Lemlich helped incite a strike that ultimately proved instrumental to industrial labor reform. As she stood in front of thousands of her fellow female workers at the Cooper Union in New York City, speaking in her native Yiddish language, she demanded swift action. "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." After a prolonged roar of approval, Lemlich and the thousands in attendance took a Yiddish oath to strike the following day, pledging, "If I turn traitor to the cause I now pledge, may this hand wither from the arm I now raise."
The next morning, Lemlich and 15,000 factory workers stood in the streets of New York to protest wages and working conditions. This strike, later dubbed the Uprising of the Twenty Thousand, lasted for over two months and transformed the culture of the industrial worker. Protestors won concessions from several factories for fair wages and shorter hours. Lemlich had not only started a protest, but she had also instigated a worker's revolution.
The progress towards workers' rights, however, was overshadowed by the disastrous Triangle Fire that claimed the lives of 146 factory workers in March of 1911. In response to the tragedy, Lemlich, who at the time was organizing unions throughout New York City, attributed the high number of casualties from the fire to the absence of union standards at the factory, which would have prohibited locked doors and required accessible fire escapes.
In the years following the Triangle Fire, Lemlich continued to fight for workers' rights. She became an active member of the Communist party and petitioned for women's suffrage.
Every year for the last eleven years, a coalition of labor activists and unions honors women like Clara Lemlich who are still fighting hard, in their eighties, nineties, and hundreds, to make this world better. The celebration, held at the Museum of the City of New York, is one of the highlights of everyone’s year: to see and hear woman after woman explain why they continue, no matter what, to fight for all they can.
This year you can join us. No matter where you are. Questions? Write us here.
Clara Lemlich Awards for Social Activism
Monday May 10, 2021 6pm - 6:30pm
(don’t be late or you’ll miss it)
Celebrate the lives of these incredible women whose brilliant activism has made real and lasting change in the world.
Barbara Dane Activist Singer
Suelika Cabrera Drinane Advocate for the Elderly
Debby King Union Fighter
Wilhelmina Perry LGBT Convener
Muriel Tillinghast Movement Organizer
Hosted by LaborArts and the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition and generously supported by the Museum of the City of New York, the Puffin Foundation and the 21st Century ILGWU Heritage Fund. www.laborarts.org/lemlichawards.
Love from your friends at Alte.