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Remembering the Waistmakers General Strike, 1909

Morris U. Schappes
May 3, 2015

In Memoriam: Clara Lemlich Shavelson (March 28, 1886 — July 25, 1982)

Originally published in the November, 1982 issue of Jewish Currents. Read the original, in PDF with footnotes.

WHEN CLARA LEMLICH SHAVELSON DIED in a Los Angeles nursing home July 25th, the death notice of the family in the New York Times July 30th and August 1st identified her as the “loving Mother and Grandmother who sparked 1909 Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike.” That action of hers has assured her a place in the history of the American labor movement, of the socialist movement, and of American Jewish life. Thus the article about her by Paula Scheier that we published in November, 1954 has been reprinted in full in The American Jewish Woman: A Documentary History, compiled by Jacob Rader Marcus (see our review, May, 1982). The strike and Clara Lemlich’s role in it are described in Philip S. Foner’s Women and the American Labor Movement from Colonial Times to the End of World War I (Free Press), in the Marxist feminist Meredith Tax’s The Rising of the Women: Feminist Solidarity and Class Conflict, 1880-1917 (Monthly Review Press), in Mari Jo Buhle’s Women and American Socialism, 1870-1920 (University of Illinois Press), and in Carol Hymowitz and Michael Weissmann’s A History of Women in America (Bantam). The ILGWU monthly organ, Justice contained a full tabloid page obituary, “Clara Lemlich Dead at 96; Heroine of Cooper Union,” in its September issue.

Yet, while the article we present below contains her own unpublished recollection of that Cooper Union meeting, we wish also to record that while her shining historic moment was in that desperate 13 week strike in 1909-1910, Clara Lemlich continued her activity in the labor, suffragist, socialist, and Jewish movements for another half century until physical incapacity took her to the sidelines. Right after the strike she was appointed a Factory Inspector by the ILGWU, she was on the Executive Board of the Women’s Trade Union League of New York (which played a strong supportive role in the strike), and continued her socialist activity. After marrying the printing worker Joseph Shavelson in 1912 and beginning to raise three children — Irving, Martha, and Rita — she became a member of the Communist Party in 1926 and in 1933 and 1938 was its candidate for local office.

In the 1920s, she was an organizer for the United Council of Working Class Women; when the Depression began, she helped organize the first Unemployed Council in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, and in 1930 and 1932 she went on the historic Hunger Marches to Washington to fight for home relief and unemployment insurance. Active also in the anti-fascist movement, she was a delegate in 1934 to the first International Women’s Congress against War and Fascism in Paris (and while overseas visited the USSR). In 1935 she was active in the Progressive Women’s Council in Brighton Beach; in 1941 she was the NYC secretary of the Women’s Division of the International Workers Order. In 1951 she was on a trade union delegation to France, Italy, Czechoslovakia, and the USSR — and also became a charter member of the Emma Lazarus Federation of Jewish Women’s Clubs. The last time I saw her in action was on a picket line to save the Rosenbergs. In 1954, with the aid of the late David Dubinsky, she was granted a pension by the ILGWU. Both Clara Lemlich and Clara Lemlich Shavelson deserve our respect, admiration, and honor.

The article by her that we publish now originated in the following circumstances: Having supplied Herbert Aptheker, head of the American Institute for Marxist Studies, with bibliographical material on the 1909 strike, I received a letter from him dated February 5, 1965, asking me to try to get from Mrs. Shavelson written answers to questions posed by a graduate student in a West Coast university who was working on a thesis on that strike. Mrs. Shavelson’s answers were postmarked March 15th from Long Beach, California and I forwarded them promptly to Aptheker to give to the student.

— Morris U. Schappes

I PERSONALLY CAME to this [country] in 1903. I knew very little about socialism. I went to work two weeks after landing in this country. We worked from sunrise to sunset seven days a week. Saturday till 4:30 o’clock. The shops were located in old dilapidated buildings, in the back of stores. Those who worked on machines had to bring their machines, particularly the men. They had to carry the machines on their back both to and from work.

Most of the shops had both a foreman and forelady. The shop we worked had no central heating, no electric power. The shop was heated by [a] coal stove which in the center of the shop. The ashes were emptied every morning but ashes were taken away once a week. The hissing of the machines, the yelling of the Foreman, made life unbearable. The girls, whether socialist or not [had] many stoppages, and strikes broke out in many shops. However every strike we called was broken by the police and gangsters hired by the bosses. In 1906 some of us girls who were more class conscious called a meeting at 206 East Broadway, where we organized the first local of the waist makers. We elected S. Shindler as our first secretary. We named the local Local 25 of the Waist Makers Union.

But since every strike we called was smashed by the bosses, the union decided to call a mass meeting at Cooper Union. The hall was packed. On the platform was Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor, Leonora O’Reilly of the Women’s Trade Union League, B. Feigenbaum of the Jewish Daily Forward. Each one talked about the terrible conditions of the workers in the shops. But no [one] gave or made any practical or valid solution. Suddenly a young girl in the audience asked for the floor. When she was given the floor she said, “I make a motion that we go out in a general strike.” The entire audience rose to its feet. Men threw their hats in the air, women waved their handkerchiefs.

The girl who made the motion was called to the platform. Mr. B Feigenbaum of the Jewish Daily Forward, who was chairman of the meeting, raised the right hand to the girl and made her repeat the famous Jewish oath: “May my right [hand] wither from [my] arm if I betray the cause I now pledge.” The following day twenty thousand waistmakers, both men and women, came out on strike.

That’s why this strike is known in the labor movement [as] the strike of the twenty thousand.

Now as to the question whether the girls were socialist, is hard to tell. All I can tell you [is] that many of us marched in the streets of downtown NY with [Alexander] Trach[t]e[n]berg as our leader. Rose Pastor Stokes marched with us. Many of the girls became leaders in the Women’s Trade Union League. Some of them joined a political party.

I[n so] far as I am concerned, I am still at it.

/s/ Clara Lemlich Shavelson
145 Lincoln Road, Brooklyn, NY

At the time of publication, Morris Schappes was the editor of Jewish Currents.