On November 23, 1909, more than twenty thousand Yiddish-speaking immigrants, mostly young women in their teens and early twenties, launched an eleven-week general strike in New York’s shirtwaist industry. Dubbed the Uprising of the 20,000, it was the largest strike by women to date in American history. The young strikers’ courage, tenacity, and solidarity forced the predominantly male leadership in the “needle trades” and the American Federation of Labor to revise their entrenched prejudices against organizing women. The strikers won only a portion of their demands, but the uprising sparked five years of revolt that transformed the garment industry into one of the best-organized trades in the United States.
Designed in the early 1890s, the shirtwaist (or blouse) arrived at a time when production of women’s clothing moved from the household to the factory. By 1909, six hundred shops operated in New York City (the center of garment manufacturing in the United States), employing thirty thousand workers and producing fifty million dollars in merchandise annually. The relatively newer shirtwaist factories—generally of medium to large size, employing roughly fifty to three hundred people during the busy seasons—provided slightly better working conditions and wages than the older suit and cloak shops, which employed mostly Jewish men.
In the shops, the internal subcontracting system trapped about a quarter of the women in unskilled, poorly paid jobs. These “learners,” so-called even after they mastered their tasks, earned three to four dollars per week (during the busy seasons) while semiskilled “operators,” about 50 to 60 percent of the workforce, earned seven to twelve dollars per week. At the top of the hierarchy stood highly skilled sample makers, cutters, and pattern makers who earned fifteen to twenty-three dollars per week and subcontracted work to “learners.” They were almost exclusively male and the most likely segment of the workforce to be unionized before the uprising. The division of labor along skill and gender lines reinforced biases among conservative trade unionists against organizing women and unskilled laborers. Although the International Ladies Garment Workers Union did not officially discriminate against women, its conservative leadership (replaced by socialists in 1914) dismissed women as an ephemeral part of the workforce, interested primarily in marriage and motherhood—an opinion shared by Samuel Gompers and many of the AFL’s craft unions. Jewish women did quit working after marriage in significantly higher numbers than their Italian coworkers, but this did not prevent militancy in the workplace or in the community. (Conversely, Italian women proved difficult to organize.) In fact, an emergent tradition of activism among women (punctuated by the 1902 kosher meat boycott, the 1907 rent strike, and sporadic labor struggles) played a key role in sustaining the 1909 uprising.
The movement that culminated in the uprising of the 20,000 began with spontaneous strikes against the Leiserson Company, the Rosen Brothers, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Company – New York’s largest manufacturer of shirtwaists – (See Triangle Shirtwaist Fire) during the summer/fall busy season of 1909. Although prompted by different incidents, workers shared a common set of underlying grievances about wages, hours, workplace safety, and workplace indignities suffered specifically by women (such as unwanted sexual advances, threats, and invasions of privacy). The Rosen Brothers settled with their employees after five weeks, but Leiserson and Triangle remained intransigent.
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