More than twenty thousand Yiddish-speaking immigrants, mostly young women, launched an eleven-week strike in New York’s shirtwaist industry on this date in 1909 — the largest strike by women in American history. Assaulted by goons, arrested by cops, lacking a substantial strike fund, the young women endured winter picketing, hunger, and harsh treatment in the courtroom. With their courage and solidarity, they convinced the male organizers of the nascent “needle trades” unions as well as the American Federation of Labor to start organizing women workers. The Uprising of the 20,000, as the strike was known, sparked several years of struggle that turned the garment industry into one of the most unionized in the land.
“Throughout the uprising, arrests and harassment continued unabated. In one month, 723 people were arrested and 19 sentenced to the workhouse. Bail averaged $2,500 per day, and court fines totaled $5,000. Overall, the strike cost $100,000. Clara Lemlich suffered six broken ribs and was arrested a total of seventeen times.” —Tony Michels