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Clara Lemlich

Clara Lemlich

Q: Hello Clara thank you so much for agreeing to share your story with us. We also want to commend you for your wonderful leadership and enthusiasm that encouraged the uprising of 20,000 shirtwaist workers in the garment industry until the beginning of last year. We want to share first the story of how you became involved in worker’s efforts. Can you tell us, in your home country of the Ukraine, does everyone go to school? Where were you educated?
A: No hardly anyone reads or writes. My parents were both illiterate. As a child I learned to read Russian over my parents’ objections. I had to pay for my own education, so I sewed buttonholes and wrote letters for my illiterate neighbors to raise money for my books.

Q: when did you come to America?

A: My family and I came to America is 1903.

Q: What made you and your family leave Kishinev?

A: we fled Kishinev after a three-days of rioting against the Jews. Forty-seven Jews were killed, 92 severely wounded, 500 slightly wounded and over 700 houses looted and destroyed. The mob was led by priests, and the general cry, “Kill the Jews,” was taken- up all over the city. Those who could make their escape fled in terror. We were some of the lucky ones.

Q: did you have trouble finding a job when you arrived in New York City?

A: no I found a job quickly in the garment industry. We were required to supply out own sewing machines and carry them to and from work. We were also obliged to bring our own needles, thread, knives, irons. Since I my mother brought a machine with her and my neighbors has needs and thread for me to borrow, I think I had an easy time finding a job.

Q: how did you get involved in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union?

A: Well I met some of the girls on the floor and I didn’t know anybody yet, since I was new, but they introduced me to some other women involved in the union. I just knew that we had to challenge the awful bosses and stand up for our rights against the terrible working conditions. Before I knew it, I was elected to the executive board of Local 25 of the union.

Q: what did you find there?

A: we had to endure long hours, low pay, lack of opportunities for advancement, and humiliating treatment from supervisors. But you know, the conditions are even worse for women. We are paid much less than men for the equivalent work. We are charged for the equipment we don’t have, for your clothes lockers, for our chairs, and for any damage to a garment. The shops are unsanitary—that’s the word that is generally used, but there ought to be a worse one used. We are even forced to go outside to reach toilets, but bosses locked doors to keep us from leaving.

Q: how are you paid?

A: First let me tell you something about the way we work and what we are paid. There are two kinds of work—regular, that is salary work, and piecework. The regular work pays about $6 a week and the girls have to be at their machines at 7 o’clock in the morning and they stay at them until 8 o’clock at night, with just one-half hour for lunch in that time.

Q: how many hours did you work?

A: we worked 65 hours a week, at the height of the season we worked 75 hours a week. Sometimes we worked until dawn.

Q: what were the conditions of your work?

A: Well, there is just one row of machines that the daylight ever gets to—that is the front row, nearest the window. The girls at all the other rows of machines back in the shops have to work by gaslight, by day as well as by night. Oh, yes, the shops keep the work going at night, too.

Q: what kind of humiliation did you face?

A: the bosses yell at the girls and call them down even worse than I imagine the Negro slaves were in the South. There are no dressing rooms for the girls in the shops, no place to hang a hat where it will not be spoiled by the end of the day. We’re human, al of us girls, and we’re young. 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.

Q: did you organize the Great Revolt then?

A: well no. in September we decided to unite the Triangle company and Leiserson company and the Triangle bosses fired the troublemakers and advertised for their replacements. So we decided to strike. A few thousand workers went on strike, but we were all threatened and attacked by the company goons. In November the ILGWU called for an emergency meeting and that’s when we began the big strike.

Q: How did you organize the 20,000 workers?

A: well to be honest I didn’t really organize them; I really just motivated them. We were all gathered at Cooper Union, you know there on Lafayette and 8th street. And all the workers from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and Leiserson Company were there. We all listened to leading figures of the American Labor Movement and Socialist leaders of the Lower East Side speak to us. You know, they just made me so mad because they talked in such general terms about the need for solidarity and preparedness and all that. well, you know, just then I asked for the opportunity to speak and I demanded action. i remember I said that I had been listening to all the speakers, and I had no further patience for talk. I am a working girl, I said, and one of those striking against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in generalities. What we are here for is to decide whether or not to strike. And finally I offered a resolution that a general strike be declared. I was just saying what all the workers were thinking, but they were just too afraid to say. And so we all walked out of the factories two days later.

Q: How long was the strike?

A: It lasted from November 22, 1909 to February 10, 1910 the following year. That was a tough winter, but we all stuck in it together.

Q: how did you feed you families? What kinds of troubles did you have financially?

A: you know there were many times people felt weak, like they couldn’t continue. They thought that the bosses could hold out forever. Toward the end it became very difficult, but we had invaluable support from our sisters at the Progressive women’s suffrage leaders.

Q: what sort of troubles did you face legally?

A: well, in the first month 723 girls were arrested.

Q: what was the response of the public?

A: there were two different responses. On the one hand some people shouted at us that we were striking against God and Nature whose law is that man shall earn his bread by the sweat of his brow. And that we strike against God! But then there were other people who saw us as impoverished immigrant girls facing gross injustice. The press was generally favorable. Protestant and Catholic clergymen held sermons on behalf of us.

Q: why do you think you won the strike?

A: by early 1910 I think that management understood that it lost war of public opinion and they saw that we could last through the entire fashion season.

Q: What sort of gains did you make?

A: Well, we were very excited. The National Women’s Trade Union League of America (NWTUL) settled with the factory owners, gaining improved wages, working conditions, and hours. Managers reduced the workweek to 52 hours a week and we gained four legal holidays with pay, we were no longer required to provide out own equipment, and a join-grievance committee would negotiate issues as they arose.