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March 20: The Cloakmakers Strike, 1886

March 20, 2013

8+hoursSix thousand members of the Dress and Cloak Makers Union in New York, most of them recent immigrants, went out on strike against eleven clothing manufacturers on this date in 1886 in protest of the contracting system. Finishers, buttonhole makers, and cutters soon joined the strike, which swelled to 9,000 by April 2. Their central demand was that manufacturers hire them directly rather than through contractors and subcontractors. Demand was slack in the industry, however, and the strike did not have devastating impact upon the firms, which gained the upper hand. By April 15th the strike was called off. More successful cloakmaker campaigns would follow in 1890 and 1894 — but 1886 was especially a year of nationwide labor unrest, as craft unions, independent unions, and the Knights of Labor agitated for an eight-hour day. "It was the very dawning of the day when the term 'dignity of labor' meant something," wrote a historian from that time, George E. McNeil. "Laboring men [sic] who had heretofore considered themselves as scarcely more than serfs, without rights or privileges . . . seemed to be inspired with a new spirit."

"Shirt ironers held a dance to raise funds for a cooperative shop in 1886 after their efforts to improve working conditions were unsuccessful. . . . In 1890, when 800 members of the Pantsmakers Union faced a lockout by the Contractors Association, they established a cooperative to provide temporary employment." —Ronald Mendel, "A Broad and Ennobling Spirit": Workers and Their Unions in the Late Gilded Age.