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The uprising of the twenty thousand

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Megan Trudell explains how a century ago, young, migrant, women workers in New York struck – and won
Issue 2183
Women picketing in February 1910
Women picketing in February 1910

On 24 November 1909, over 20,000 garment workers walked out of hundreds of workshops in New York. This strike has become known as the “Uprising of the Twenty Thousand”.

It was a turning point in the history of workers in the US.

The shirtwaist (blouse) trade had expanded quickly during the rapid industrialisation of US capitalism in the years after the civil war.

By 1909, there were around 600 workshops in New York employing some 35,000 workers. Most workers were young women aged between 16 and 25, and the vast majority were Jewish immigrants.

The women had to pay for their needles and thread, for the electricity they used and even for the chairs they sat on.

They were fined for lateness and mistakes, and were frequently bullied and abused by their bosses.

Wages fell dramatically during the depression of 1908. By 1909 the women earned an average $5 a week for between 56 and 59 hours of work, paid by the piece.

US unions of the time, organised in the American Federation of Labor (AFL), were based on skilled, male workers and believed unskilled workers were “unorganisable”.

The garment workers’ union was run by men, who occupied the trade’s higher paid jobs. It had fewer than 800 members in 1909.

Yet the pressure on wages and the draconian conditions provoked walk-outs from several workshops during 1908 and 1909, as workers demanded union recognition, shorter hours and wage increases.

By October 1909 it was clear that action across the industry was needed to win.

Two thousand women joined the union and clamoured for a general strike.

On 22 November a mass meeting was called in New York, addressed by Samuel Gompers, head of the AFL, and other union leaders.

One after another, the speakers attempted to discourage strike action.

Then Clara Lemlich, a 20 year old woman who had been on strike for weeks and had been hospitalised after a beating on the picket line, stood up to speak.

She cried, “I have listened to all the speakers and I have no further patience for talk. I am one who feels and suffers from the things pictured. I move we go on a general strike!”

Everyone in the 3,000-strong meeting leapt to their feet cheering. When the vote was called, every hand went up.

Nearly 30,000 workers joined the strike, to the amazement of union leaders and the country at large.

Many smaller employers caved in almost immediately, granting union recognition, a 52-hour week and the withdrawal of charges for needles and equipment. But larger firms held out.

So began a fight that lasted through the winter.

The strikers suffered on the picket lines, enduring freezing temperatures and beatings and arrests from the police. Many were thrown in jail.

Despite their treatment at the hands of the police and the courts, the women’s spirit held and the strike continued. In December it spread to Philadelphia.

The strikers took to handing cards out to strikebreakers which read, “You are doing little more than starving to death on the dollar-a-day wages that you are getting. Why not starve outside? Come on, get a little fresh air.”

In both cities, wealthy women, women students and suffrage activists lent their support to the workers and publicised their plight.

Early in January 1910, the strikers rejected an employers’ offer on wages and conditions because it refused union recognition.

At this point the support of “society” women began to fall away. The AFL negotiated a settlement with the remaining workshop owners.

The strike ended in February, having won significant gains of a 52-hour week and the scrapping of payment for work materials, though not its goal of general union recognition.

Nonetheless, over 30,000 workers joined the garment workers’ union. The uprising heralded the development of US unions into mass organisations.

The capacity of young, migrant women workers, with vast odds stacked against them, to stand firm for months and force concessions from powerful employers is a beacon of inspiration for all those fighting back today.

The Uprising of the Twenty Thousand showed that economic recession does not rule out struggle.

And it smashed for good any notion that women could not organise or could not fight back.

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