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Clara Lemlich Sparks an Uprising

November 22, 2017

Clara Lemlich made a spontaneous speech at Cooper Union on this date in 1909 that sparked the “Uprising of the 20,000,” an industry-wide strike of shirtwaist workers mobilized by the new International Ladies Garment Workers Union. “I want to say a few words!” shouted Lemlich, a 23-year-old garment worker, in Yiddish, following AFL leader Samuel Gompers’ somewhat cautious speech. (Her age at the time is sometimes misreported as 19.) Lemlich, who had immigrated from western Ukraine in 1905 to escape antisemitism, was a member of the executive board of ILGWU Local 25 and had been arrested seventeen times, with broken ribs to show for it. “I have no further patience for talk,” she said upon reaching the podium, “as I am one of those who feels and suffers from the things pictured. I move that we go on a general strike . . . now!” The strike lasted until February and was met with constant violence, but at its end the union had increased its membership from the hundreds to some twenty thousand, and most of the major sweatshop owners had signed union contracts — except for the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. Lemlich remained an activist until her death in 1982 at age 96.

“The bosses in the shops are hardly what you would call educated men, and the girls to them are part of the machines they are running.” —Clara Lemlich, New York Evening Journal, November 28, 1909