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Triangle Fire | Article

Clara Lemlich and the Uprising of the 20,000

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Clara Lemlich, Courtesy: Cornell Kheel Center

Clara Lemlich, a 23-year-old Ukrainian immigrant, rose to a position of power in the women's labor movement, becoming the voice that incited the famous Uprising of the Twenty Thousand in 1909. Born in 1886 in the Ukrainian town of Gorodok, Lemlich grew up in a Jewish family that experienced the social upheaval and hardships defined by the declining Russian monarchy. Facing poverty and an increase in anti-Jewish violence, Lemlich's family fled Ukraine in 1903 and found a new home and new work in the United States. 

Like many Jewish and Italian immigrant laborers, Lemlich joined the textile-manufacturing workforce only two weeks after arriving in New York. At the Gotham shirtwaist factory, women worked 11 hours a day, six days a week, for starting wages of $3 a week -- conditions that reduced workers "to the status of machines," wrote 17-year-old Lemlich. Appalled by these circumstances, Lemlich joined the executive board of a local chapter of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU), a relatively new organization gaining momentum in the fight for workers' rights. In that role, Lemlich led picket lines, wrote opinion pieces, and organized strikes to improve factory conditions. Lemlich and her supporters were often physically harmed by policemen and thugs hired by factory owners. In one case Lemlich was hospitalized after a beating she received while standing in the picket line.

On November 22nd, 1909, Lemlich helped incite a strike that ultimately proved instrumental to industrial labor reform. As she stood in front of thousands of her fellow female workers at the Cooper Union in New York City, speaking in her native Yiddish language, she demanded swift action. "I am a working girl," proclaimed Lemlich. "One of those who are on strike against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in general terms. What we are here for is to decide whether we shall strike or shall not strike. I offer a resolution that a general strike be declared now." After a prolonged roar of approval, Lemlich and the thousands in attendance took a Yiddish oath to strike the following day, pledging, "If I turn traitor to the cause I now pledge, may this hand wither from the arm I now raise."

The next morning, Lemlich and 15,000 factory workers stood in the streets of New York to protest wages and working conditions. This strike, later dubbed the Uprising of the Twenty Thousand, lasted for over two months and transformed the culture of the industrial worker. Protestors won concessions from several factories for fair wages and shorter hours. Lemlich had not only started a protest, but she had also instigated a worker's revolution.

The progress towards workers' rights, however, was overshadowed by the disastrous Triangle Fire that claimed the lives of 146 factory workers in March of 1911. In response to the tragedy, Lemlich, who at the time was organizing unions throughout New York City, attributed the high number of casualties from the fire to the absence of union standards at the factory, which would have prohibited locked doors and required accessible fire escapes.

In the years following the Triangle Fire, Lemlich continued to fight for workers' rights. She became an active member of the Communist party and petitioned for women's suffrage. Because of her political leanings Lemlich eventually broke ties with the ILGWU and many of her colleagues, including activist Pauline Newman, who stated, "Her politics [were] not my cup of tea... We no longer had anything in common except the memory of the strike and our participation in it."

In 1913, Lemlich married Joe Shavelson, a printer's union activist, and together they had three children. She continued to speak on behalf of several causes, and she lead a nationwide food strike in response to inflated prices during World War I. Throughout the 1940's Lemlich served on the American Committee to Survey Trade Union Conditions in Europe, and became an organizer for the American League against War and Fascism. Due to her earlier involvement in the Communist Party, Lemlich and her family were monitored by the House of Un-American Activities Committee throughout the 1950s. Lemlich officially retired from the ILGWU in 1954. She died on July 12, 1982.

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