Tansy Hoskins looks at the extraordinary life of a trade union leader, communist, peace activist, suffragist and community organiser
On 22 November 1909, a young Ukrainian woman pushed her way to the front of a packed strike meeting of the Coopers Union in New York City. The meeting had been long and full of discouraging speeches in English, which most of the audience of female immigrant garment workers could not understand.
The young woman, Clare Lemlich, insisted she be allowed to speak. She took to the stage and addressed the crowd in Yiddish:
"I am one of those who works in the intolerable conditions described here. 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 not strike. I offer a resolution that a general strike be declared NOW."
The crowd roared its approval and the next day Lemlich took to the streets of New York with many thousands of her fellow factory workers. The strike became known as the Uprising of the Twenty Thousand. The bitter, but ultimately successful, battle for better wages and working conditions lasted for over two months and set off a wave of women’s strikes between 1909 and 1915 that spread from New York to Philadelphia, Cleveland, Chicago, Iowa, and Michigan.
Clara Lemlich had given voice to the fiery resentment of tens of thousands of young female garment workers, forced into inhumane working conditions in America's sweatshops.
Lemlich arrived in the USA in 1903, fleeing with her family from the pogroms of Tsarist Russia. Within two weeks of arriving in America, 17-year-old Lemlich started work at the Gotham shirtwaist factory in New York. Workers at the factory worked eleven hour shifts, six days per week for a meagre salary – they were, Lemlich wrote, reduced 'to the status of machines.'
Unwilling to accept her fate, Clara Lemlich joined the local branch of the newly formed International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU). As a member of the executive Lemlich led picket lines, wrote opinion pieces, and organised strikes to improve factory conditions.
This was a dangerous role. When she made her Uprising of the Twenty Thousand speech she was still recovering from being severely beaten by management thugs on a picket line.
However, the dangers of not struggling for change were far worse. On 25 March 1911, disaster struck at the Triangle shirtwaist factory in New York. A fire swept through the building, killing 146 workers – mostly young Jewish and Italian women.
The death toll was greatly increased by the lack of fire safety precautions and locked fire escapes. The factory management had blocked the main exits so that employees could be searched for stolen goods before leaving.
Aided by a corrupt judge, the Triangle factory’s owners – Max Blank and Isaac Harris – escaped responsibility at the subsequent trial. The tragedy galvanised the fight for workers rights and in time led to the gradual implementation of fire codes for homes and workplaces.
Organising against the odds
Having been blacklisted from New York garment factories, Clara Lemlich helped to found the Wage Earners League for Woman Suffrage, a working-class suffrage group. She was, however, fired from her position as organiser because her radical opinions were too much for the reformist aims of many middle-class suffragists.
In 1913, she married Joe Shavelson, a printers’ union activist, and they had three children. From her new family home in Brooklyn, Clara Lemlich began organising wives and mothers around such issues as housing, food, and public education. She helped lead strikes against rises in meat prices and also the rent strikes that swept New York in 1919.
As a member of the Communist Party, another organisation that Lemlich helped to found was the United Council of Working-Class Housewives in 1926. This council was established to help the wives of striking workers raise funds, gather food, and set up community kitchens and co-operative child care.
The council was so successful that Lemlich worked with Rose Nelson to found the United Council of Working-Class Women in 1929 (its name was changed to the Progressive Women's Council in 1935).
The Great Depression brought food shortages, unemployment and evictions to many working class families. The Progressive Women's Council worked to ameliorate the worst of these conditions. It organised successful rent strikes, anti-eviction demonstrations, boycotts, sit-ins and marches on Washington.
The Council worked with a broad range of groups to build a coalition against austerity. By the end of World War II the housewives’ movement had forced the federal government to regulate food and housing costs, and to investigate profiteering on staple goods.
Radical to the end
Nearing the age of 60 and with a sick husband, Lemlich once again began working in the garment trade and the trade union movement. She also became an organiser for the American League against War and Fascism and became an outspoken critic of nuclear weapons. Her passport was revoked after a visit to the Soviet Union.
She also protested against the executions of the Rosenbergs and against US intervention in Guatemala in 1954. Upon her retirement Lemlich was denied a pension by the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union but was eventually granted a stipend.
At the age of 81, having survived two husbands, Clara Lemlich moved into the Jewish Home for the Aged in Los Angeles. She lived there until her death 15 years later on 12 July 1982.
Unashamedly radical and deeply committed to her revolutionary beliefs until the end, Clara Lemlich persuaded the nursing home administrators to support the fruit boycotts of the United Farm Workers and helped the home's orderlies to organise themselves into a union.
Jewish Women's Archive
American Postal Workers Union archive
Tansy Hoskins is the activist author of Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion. She has worked for Stop the War Coalition, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and the Islam Channel. As a political commentator she has discussed fashion, politics and change on Woman's Hour, BBC Breakfast and Channel 4's Ten O'Clock Live.
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