A SHIRTWAIST TALE-The Klezmer Musical

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The Strike-Background and Links


Beginning in the 1880’s, a wave of pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe led to a large number of Jewish immigrants to the United States and other countries.  A characteristic feature of the Jewish migration was the migration of whole families; another characteristic was that very few of those who migrated returned to their countries of origin. 


Many of the Jewish immigrants landed in New York City and stayed there, in the densely-packed Lower East Side.  Here a Jewish immigrant found housing in one of the crowded tenement buildings (at more than 700 people per acre, the Lower East Side was the most crowded neighborhood on the planet) and, often, work in one of the local factories.  The common language was Yiddish, a Germanic language in several dialects, written with the Hebrew alphabet.  Yiddish theater was a mainstay of local entertainment; klezmer, the music of the community.


Many of the immigrants found work in the garment industry, and the Lower East Side housed a number of tiny, sweatshop factories where women and children worked long hours cutting, sewing and finishing clothing on a piecework basis.  In the shirtwaist factories, Jewish women comprised about 70% of the workforce.  The largest of these factories belonged to the Triangle and Leiserson companies; at the time of the 1909 strike which forms the background of A Shirtwaist Tale, Triangle employed almost 1,000 workers.


In many of the shirtwaist factories, the factory owner never dealt directly with the workers; instead, they operated through sub-contractors, who undertook to produce a definite amount of work in a definite amount of time and bargained as he saw fit with the girls.  The sub-contractors might operate within the factory or outside, taking unfinished goods from the factory and returning finished goods.  Working conditions at the shirtwaist factories were deplorable—low pay, long hours and unsafe and unsanitary conditions


The 1909 strike began at Triangle, first as a walkout by workers protesting the firing of union “troublemakers” and then as a lockout by the company.  There was also a local strike at Leiserson’s.  On November 22, 1909, a mass meeting of the Union, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (there were both men and women in the union; “ladies” referred to the product and not the sex of the workers), was held at Cooper Union in New York.  The leaders of the Union appealed for labor unity, for financial and “moral” support of the strikers, but did not call for a sympathy strike at all factories.  However, Clara Lemlich, a 19-year old striker from Lieserson’s who had been assaulted while picketing, requested to speak.  Addressing the crowd in Yiddish, Lemlich appealed for united action against all of the manufacturers and put the motion for a general strike by the shirtwaist workers in New York and Philadelphia, which was unanimously approved.  20,000 workers went out on strike.


Among the strikers’ demands were: (1) a restriction of work to 52 hours per week and not more than two hours of overtime on any one day; (2) abolition of the sub-contractor system; (3) improved wages; and (4) improved safety and sanitary conditions.


Picketing strikers were met by shtarkers, neighborhood thugs hired by the companies to harass the picketers and protect strike-breakers.  The police were also enlisted in the strike-breaking work; in the first month, 723 girls were arrested, and 19 sent to the workhouse. 


However, the strikers’ cause was taken up by progressives, women’s-suffrage leaders, and other social reformers, particularly Alva Belmont (also known as “Mrs. O.H.P. Belmont,” after her late husband, Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont) and the Women’s Trade Union League.  The women provided bail money, joined picket lines, monitored the courts and brought charges against the police. 


The strike continued for thirteen weeks, until February 15, 1910, when an agreement was reached.  Under its terms, most of the manufacturers signed a collective bargaining agreement agreeing to a wage increase, a reduction of the workweek to 52 hours, four legal holidays with pay, no punishment for striking, and to a joint grievance committee.


The Triangle Shirtwaist Company did not sign the collective bargaining agreement, although workers were re-hired.  On March 25, 1911, slightly over one year after the end of the strike, a fire at the Company caused the death of 146 garment workers who either died in the fire or jumped to their deaths from an exit which had been locked ostensibly to prevent workers from stealing materials or taking breaks and to keep out union organizers.