Two women strik­ers pick­et­ing dur­ing the New York Shirt­waist Strike of 1909, led by Clara Lem­lich and the Inter­na­tion­al Ladies’ Gar­ment Work­ers’ Union, sup­port­ed by the Nation­al Wom­en’s Trade Union League of America

Clara Lem­lich was born on March 28, 1886, in west­ern Ukraine, about fif­teen miles from Lviv, in a shtetl named Gorodok where near­ly one third of the res­i­dents were Jew­ish. She was raised in a patri­ar­chal, Yid­dish-speak­ing house­hold, which meant that as a young girl, she was denied the edu­ca­tion her broth­ers received. Barred from the village’s sole pub­lic school because she was Jew­ish, she was for­bid­den by her par­ents to learn Russ­ian. Clara defied them. Old­er acquain­tances tutored her in the lan­guage and loaned her books by Tol­stoy, Gorky, and Tur­genev. A neigh­bor exposed her to anti-czarist screeds and Social­ism. She earned mon­ey by sewing but­ton­holes and writ­ing let­ters for illit­er­ate vil­lagers to rel­a­tives who had emi­grat­ed to America.

In 1903, when Clara was sev­en­teen, the bloody Kishinev pogroms in Moldo­va final­ly pro­voked her par­ents to escape with her and her four broth­ers. They arrived in Decem­ber 1904 on the Amer­i­can Line’s SS New York. Accord­ing to the man­i­fest, her father, Schim­schan (Simon) Lum­back, described his occu­pa­tion as a book­binder. He had been liv­ing in Lon­don, he said, had thir­ty dol­lars in his pock­et, was nei­ther a polyg­a­mist nor an anar­chist, and was join­ing a cousin who lived on Stan­ton Street on the Low­er East Side. Clara, list­ed as Cheise, iden­ti­fied her­self to immi­gra­tion author­i­ties as a nine­teen-year-old tailoress.

By the begin­ning of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, more than half of the clothes man­u­fac­tured in the Unit­ed States were made in New York City, with most women’s wear pro­duced by immi­grant girls who con­front­ed gen­der inequal­i­ty, sex­u­al harass­ment, squalid and unsafe work­ing con­di­tions, low wages, and long hours. In a job mar­ket defined by volatile turnover and sea­son­al demand, Clara was hired with­in a few weeks after she arrived in New York in 1904. She rapid­ly advanced to a hand­some six­teen- dol­lar-a-week salary as a drap­er, cre­at­ing the pat­terns for mass pro­duc­tion of spe­cif­ic blouse and dress designs by metic­u­lous­ly plac­ing fab­ric over a man­nequin. But, she lat­er recalled, the hiss­ing of the machines, the yelling of the fore­man made life unbear­able” — even worse, she told the New York Evening Jour­nal, than I would imag­ine slaves were in the South.” She and her col­leagues worked six­ty-five, some­times sev­en­ty-five-hour weeks. They often had to sup­ply their own nee­dles and thread.

Deter­mined to improve her lot, Clara began by enrolling in the Edu­ca­tion­al League on Madi­son Street to learn Eng­lish. She stud­ied Marx­ist the­o­ry at the Social­ist Party’s Rand School of Social Sci­ence, and edu­cat­ed her­self at the East Broad­way branch of the New York Pub­lic Library.

We’re human, all of us girls, and we’re young,” Lem­lich told read­ers of Good House­keep­ing mag­a­zine. We like new hats as well as any oth­er young women. Why shouldn’t we? And if one of us gets a new one, even if it hasn’t cost more than 50 cents, that means that we have gone for weeks on two-cent lunch­es — dry cakes and noth­ing else.” A beau­ti­ful build­ing on Fifth Avenue was a Potemkin facade, she said, for a fac­to­ry where three hun­dred work­ers com­pet­ed for one sink and two toi­lets, where the office clock was draped to pre­vent them from even glanc­ing up to check the hour and cheat the boss­es on over­time. The girls walked out to pre­vent them­selves from being starved out,” she said. The man­u­fac­tur­er has a vote; the boss­es have votes; the fore­men have votes; the inspec­tors have votes. The work­ing girl has no vote.”

Jews — includ­ing house­wives, who already had a his­to­ry of protest in rent strikes and kosher meat boy­cotts — and Ital­ians, leery of orga­nized labor in the begin­ning, edged war­i­ly into blue-col­lar alliances. These coali­tions would spur the rise of politi­cians like future con­gress­man and may­or Fiorel­lo La Guardia, who at the time was fin­ish­ing law school at New York Uni­ver­si­ty while work­ing as an inter­preter on Ellis Island. Among the first hun­dred immi­grant girls Lem­lich can­vassed, only five agreed to join the union. What did I know about trade union­ism?” she said lat­er of her for­ti­tude. Audac­i­ty — that was all I had — audac­i­ty.” Her swag­ger, her refusal to be rel­e­gat­ed to a cog, was what made her stand up to the boss­es: Girls, to them,” she said, are part of the machines they are manning.”

Rose Schnei­der­man and Pauline New­man, who would lat­er be uni­ver­sal­ly cel­e­brat­ed as labor hero­ines, served as Lemlich’s men­tors. When she began work­ing at Leiserson’s, Annelise Orleck wrote in Com­mon Sense and a Lit­tle Fire (2017), Lem­lich brazen­ly marched unin­vit­ed into a strike meet­ing that had been called by the shop’s old­er male elite — the skilled cut­ters and drap­ers — warn­ing them that they would lose if they attempt­ed to strike with­out orga­niz­ing the shop’s unskilled women.”

On August 12, 1909, five self-styled detec­tives hired by Rosen Broth­ers to pro­tect Ital­ian girls unwill­ing to jeop­ar­dize their jobs for union sol­i­dar­i­ty phys­i­cal­ly beat Lem­lich and sev­er­al oth­er pick­ets dur­ing an alter­ca­tion that left her hos­pi­tal­ized. She hid her bro­ken ribs and bruis­es from her par­ents. The detec­tives” — a prize­fight­er and sev­er­al ex-con­victs — were mirac­u­lous­ly arrest­ed, but a month lat­er, even as Lem­lich remained hos­pi­tal­ized, they were released from jail. The strik­ers were fined ten dol­lars each for dis­or­der­ly con­duct. But then wealthy women like Anne Mor­gan, J.P.’s mav­er­ick daugh­ter, and Alva Bel­mont, whose father-in-law, August Bel­mont, was invest­ment banker to the Roth­schilds, pro­vid­ed more than mon­ey and moral sup­port. They put their bod­ies on the line. The arrests of mid­dle- and upper-class pick­eters made the man­u­fac­tur­ers squirm.

Hav­ing been arrest­ed sev­en­teen times while orga­niz­ing or pick­et­ing, Lem­lich, bare­ly five feet tall, had no com­punc­tions about chal­leng­ing her union’s male lead­er­ship. Asked lat­er how she man­aged to orga­nize twen­ty thou­sand large­ly une­d­u­cat­ed work­ers, Lem­lich replied: Well, to be hon­est, I didn’t real­ly orga­nize them; I real­ly just moti­vat­ed them.” She went on to recount how she felt that night at Coop­er Union, lis­ten­ing to the speech­es: They just made me so mad because they talked in such gen­er­al terms about the need for sol­i­dar­i­ty and pre­pared­ness and all that.” Instead, I demand­ed action … I was just say­ing what all the work­ers were think­ing, but they were just too afraid to say.”

Lem­lich remained unapolo­getic and unre­con­struct­ed, protest­ing a broad range of what struck her as injustices.

Lemlich’s role didn’t end with her words at Coop­er Union. A com­mit­tee of men is han­dling the strike, but Clara Lem­lich, a pret­ty East Sider of 19 years, is the Joan of Arc who is rec­og­nized as the sen­ti­men­tal leader,” the Evening Repub­li­can of Meadville, Pennsy­va­nia, report­ed. She went about every­where encour­ag­ing her com­pan­ions and kept enthu­si­asm at high pitch.” A Jew­ish week­ly in Chica­go, the Reform Advo­cate, declared: The soul of this young woman’s rev­o­lu­tion is Clara Lem­lich, a spir­it of fire and tears, devoid of ego­tism, unable to tol­er­ate the thought of human suf­fer­ing.” On the pick­et lines, the New York Sun report­ed, The girls, head­ed by teenage Clara Lem­lich, described by union orga­niz­ers as a pint of trou­ble for the boss­es,’ began singing Ital­ian and Russ­ian work­ing-class songs as they paced in twos before the fac­to­ry door.”

Many of the small­er shops met most of the union’s demands ear­ly on, but the larg­er fac­to­ries held out longer, defy­ing the pick­ets by hir­ing scabs and even shift­ing pro­duc­tion out-of-town. Wage increas­es were nego­tiable. So was reduc­ing the work­week from as much as sev­en­ty-five hours in high sea­son to fifty-two. What Tri­an­gle and the oth­er biggest own­ers absolute­ly refused to budge on was rec­og­niz­ing the union and nego­ti­at­ing an indus­try­wide col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment. As the walk­out dragged on, the strik­ers’ sta­mi­na was sore­ly test­ed, as Gom­pers had pre­dict­ed. But as pick­ets paced in tem­per­a­tures that aver­aged below freez­ing, a num­ber of them suf­fered from mal­nu­tri­tion, and some sev­en hun­dred were arrest­ed, pub­lic opin­ion began to shift. Even the Times was edg­ing toward the view that respon­si­ble union­ism, lead­ing to con­struc­tive part­ner­ships with man­age­ment — what was being described under the broad umbrel­la of indus­tri­al democ­ra­cy — was a nec­es­sary evil to fend off more rad­i­cal and even rev­o­lu­tion­ary alternatives.

When the strike final­ly end­ed in mid-Feb­ru­ary 1910, after near­ly three months, the union had won the bat­tle, if not the war. Of the 353 mem­ber firms of the Asso­ci­at­ed Waist and Dress Man­u­fac­tur­ers, rep­re­sent­ing the fac­to­ry own­ers, 339 signed con­tracts that pro­vid­ed for a fifty-two-hour week, four paid hol­i­days annu­al­ly, pro­vi­sion of tools with­out fee, and job safe­guards for union mem­bers. With­in a few years, the so-called nee­dle trades became a mod­el of indus­tri­al union­ism in America.

These labor vic­to­ries must have grat­i­fied Clara Lem­lich, but they didn’t help her much pro­fes­sion­al­ly. Because her father (who, like his wife, had arrived from Rus­sia illit­er­ate) had dif­fi­cul­ty keep­ing a full-time job, she often had to be the family’s main bread­win­ner. She applied for work under alias­es but was hound­ed out of the gar­ment business.

On March 25, 1911, thir­teen months after the shirt­waist work­ers’ strike end­ed, a fire in the Tri­an­gle plant on Wash­ing­ton Place killed 146 work­ers, most­ly young immi­grant girls work­ing late on a Sat­ur­day and unable to escape because exits were barred to pre­vent theft. The fire gal­va­nized gar­ment work­ers, pro­gres­sives, labor orga­niz­ers, and Demo­c­ra­t­ic politi­cians into a mus­cu­lar coali­tion that would shape social pol­i­cy for decades. If it had been a union shop,” Lem­lich said, there would not have been any locked doors, and the girls would have been on the street almost an hour before the fire started.”

Con­sumer advo­cate Frances Perkins was hav­ing tea at the Wash­ing­ton Square town house of Mar­garet Nor­ris, a descen­dant of Alexan­der Hamil­ton, when she was stirred by steady wail of sirens and raced to the scene. At for­mer pres­i­dent Theodore Roosevelt’s rec­om­men­da­tion, Perkins was named to head a com­mit­tee on safe­ty, which led to the appoint­ment of a com­mis­sion to inves­ti­gate the fac­to­ry. Its staff of inspec­tors — appar­ent­ly at Perkins’s sug­ges­tion — includ­ed Clara Lem­lich. (Work­place own­ers were out­raged. It would seem,” said one, that in view of what Miss Lem­lich says she has suf­fered at the hands of man­u­fac­tur­ers she would be rather a prej­u­diced per­son to entrust to fac­to­ry inspec­tions.”) In The Tri­an­gle Fire, the Pro­to­cols of Peace, and Indus­tri­al Democ­ra­cy in Pro­gres­sive Era New York (2005), Richard A. Green­wald wrote that the com­mis­sion not only trans­formed work­ing con­di­tions in New York, it invent­ed urban lib­er­al­ism and forged the first work­ing alliance between mid­dle-class experts and reform­ers and machine politicians.”

In 1911, Lem­lich would also help found the Wage-Earn­ers Suf­frage League with Leono­ra O’Reilly and Rose Schnei­der­man. She mar­ried Joseph Shavel­son, a print­ers’ union activist, in 1913 (becom­ing a U.S. cit­i­zen as a result), moved in with his sis­ter in Brook­lyn, and devot­ed much of her time to rais­ing three chil­dren. (Her two daugh­ters both became social cru­saders. Her son, Irv­ing Charles Shavel­son, a machin­ist in the Brook­lyn Navy Yard, abbre­vi­at­ed his sur­name to Vel­son. He was lat­er iden­ti­fied as a Sovi­et mil­i­tary intel­li­gence agent in the Pana­ma Canal Zone and who in New York col­lab­o­rat­ed with Bernard Schus­ter, the Amer­i­can Com­mu­nist Par­ty offi­cial who recruit­ed Julius Rosen­berg to steal Amer­i­can mil­i­tary secrets.)

By the mid-1920s, Lem­lich was orga­niz­ing boy­cotts of kosher butch­ers to protest high prices, lead­ing rent strikes, and chal­leng­ing evic­tions. Around 1926, she joined the Com­mu­nist Par­ty; she was the party’s nom­i­nee for alder­man in 1933 and for the state assem­bly from Brook­lyn in 1936. She helped estab­lish the nation­wide Unit­ed Coun­cil of Work­ing Class Women, and dur­ing the Depres­sion she mobi­lized a boy­cott that man­aged to shut down an esti­mat­ed 4,500 butch­er shops in New York City in protest against meat short­ages and price gouging.

In 1944, after her hus­band got sick (he died in 1951), Lem­lich returned to work in the gar­ment indus­try. She retired three years lat­er, begin­ning a pro­tract­ed strug­gle with the ILGWU, which denied her a pen­sion because she lacked fif­teen years of con­sec­u­tive ser­vice, though its ven­er­a­ble pres­i­dent David Dubin­sky even­tu­al­ly inter­vened and award­ed her a mod­est stipend.

Lem­lich remained unapolo­getic and unre­con­struct­ed, protest­ing a broad range of what struck her as injus­tices. In 1960 she mar­ried Abe Gold­man, an old acquain­tance from the labor move­ment. When he died in 1967, she moved into the Jew­ish Home for the Aged in Los Ange­les. (Her daugh­ter Martha Schaf­fer lived in Cal­i­for­nia, where she, too, was an advo­cate for social jus­tice; her oth­er daugh­ter, Rita Mar­gules, was in New York.) Even in her eight­ies, she suc­cess­ful­ly lob­bied the admin­is­tra­tors of the retire­ment home to hon­or the Unit­ed Farm Work­ers boy­cott of nonunion grapes and let­tuce, and even helped the order­lies there to form a union.

Excerpt­ed from The New York­ers: 31 Remark­able Peo­ple, 400 Years, and the Untold Biog­ra­phy of the World’s Great­est CityUsed with the per­mis­sion of the pub­lish­er, Blooms­bury. Copy­right © 2022 by Sam Roberts

Sam Roberts, a 50-year vet­er­an of New York jour­nal­ism, is an obit­u­ar­ies reporter and for­mer­ly the Urban Affairs cor­re­spon­dent at the New York Times. He hosts the New York Times Close Up,” which he inau­gu­rat­ed in 1992, and the pod­casts Only in New York,” anthol­o­gized in a book of the same name, and The Cau­cus.” He is the author of A His­to­ry of New York in 27 Build­ings, A His­to­ry of New York in 101 Objects, and Grand Cen­tral: How a Train Sta­tion Trans­formed Amer­i­ca, among oth­ers. He has writ­ten for the New York Times Mag­a­zine, the New Repub­lic, New York, Van­i­ty Fair, and For­eign Affairs. A his­to­ry advis­er to Fed­er­al Hall, he lives in New York with his wife and two sons.