Clara Lemlich was born in 1886 the town of Gorodok in what is now Ukraine. She grew up in a Yiddish-speaking household and learned to read Russian over her family’s objections, paying for her books by sewing buttons and writing letters for illiterate neighbors.
In 1903, when she had just turned 17, there was a murderous pogrom in the city of Kishinev . The new York Times described it this way:
The anti-Jewish riots in Kishinev, Bessarabia, are worse than the censor will permit to publish. There was a well laid-out plan for the general massacre of Jews on the day following the Russian Easter. The mob was led by priests, and the general cry, “Kill the Jews,” was taken- up all over the city. The Jews were taken wholly unaware and were slaughtered like sheep. The dead number 120 and the injured about 500. The scenes of horror attending this massacre are beyond description. Babes were literally torn to pieces by the frenzied and bloodthirsty mob. The local police made no attempt to check the reign of terror. At sunset the streets were piled with corpses and wounded. Those who could make their escape fled in terror, and the city is now practically deserted of Jews
The pogrom became a pivotal event for hundreds of thousands of Jews in the region, who saw the tacit approval of the authorities, and their lack of response, as a signal that life under the Tsar would be more and more intolerable from that point forward. A poem describing the Kishinev pogrom by H.N. Bialik, In the City of Slaughter, was widely read and served as the catalyst that ignited a wave of immigration of Russian Jews to the United States.
Clara Lemlich was among the first, and arrived with her parents in New York in 1903. She went to work in the garment industry, like many others, making women’s blouses, or “shirtwaists”.
The advent of the sewing machine had actually contributed to worsening working conditions in the garment industry. Workers often had to supply their own machines, carrying them to and from work, while making extremely low wages, typically $2 per day for 14-hour days in the busy season, with only a short break for lunch, and in oppressive conditions. Workers were locked in overcrowded rooms, denied bathroom breaks, and abused by their bosses who demanded more and more production.
Lemlich joined the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and rose quickly because of her intelligence, charm, and beautiful singing voice. She became known even outside the industry after a Nov. 22, 1909 meeting in the Great Hall of Cooper Union in New York. The meeting was to support striking workers of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, and Lemlich, after hearing a few uninspiring speeches from leaders of the American labor movement, including Samuel Gompers who counseled against striking, demanded to speak. She said,
I have listened to all the speakers, and I have no further patience for talk. I am a working girl, 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. I make a motion that we go out in a general strike!
Cooper Union then and now
Her words inspired the crowd to action, and, led by the 22-year-old Lemlich, 20,000 out of the 32,000 workers in the shirtwaist trade walked out in the next two days, in what became known as the Uprising of the 20,000.
Management was unimpressed. One manufacturer was quoted in the New York Times, November 25, 1909, saying:
“We cannot understand why so many people can be swayed to join in a strike that has no merit. Our employees were perfectly satisfied, and they made no demands. It is a foolish, hysterical strike.”
They hired scabs and thugs to intimidate the strikers and Lemlich endured beatings and six broken ribs, but this just strengthened her resolve. Although she probably wasn’t, she could have been the model for the Woody Guthrie song, Union Maid.
The strike lasted for three months, ending in February 1910, and won the workers better wages and some improvements in conditions. Union contracts were also implemented at many shops, but not Triangle Shirtwaist, where conditions remained terrible. One year later, it was the scene of one of the deadliest industrial disasters in U.S. history.
The Triangle Shirtwaist factory was on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of what is now an N.Y.U. building at 23–29 Washington Place in Greenwich Village. This week was the 106th anniversary of the unconscionable, preventable fatal fire there.
Triangle factory then and now
On Saturday, March 25th, 1911, at 4:40 P.M., someone apparently threw a cigarette into a scrap bin and a fire began. Within half an hour 146 people were dead: 123 women and 23 men. They died from burning, smoke inhalation, falling from collapsed fire escapes, or jumping to their deaths.
Collapsed fire escape
Police look up at jumpers, some already dead at their feet
The stairwells and exits had been locked to prevent theft and unauthorized breaks from work. The owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, who themselves had immigrated from Russia ten years earlier, were in the building when the fire started and escaped by jumping from the roof to an adjacent building.
Blanck and Harris
The victims were predominantly girls and young women, mostly 18-22 years old, with the youngest only 14. About half of them were recent Jewish immigrants from Russia, much like Clara. About a third were Italian immigrants. This interesting website at Cornell’s Industrial and Labor Relations school gives a biographical sketch of each of the victims and links to more info, even death certificates.
Clara went to the armory where the bodies of the workers had been taken in order to find a missing cousin. A newspaper reporter said she broke down into hysterical laughter when she couldn’t find her.
Waiting in line to identify bodies
In the aftermath, hearings were held about factory safety and working conditions, and thirty new safety and workplace laws were passed.
Harris and Blanck were tried for manslaughter, but acquitted as it couldn’t be proven they knew the doors were locked.
Clara remained an activist throughout her life. From this piece about her:
As for Clara, she left the ILGWU because of disgust with its conservative leadership and her inability to work in the industry. She joined the women’s suffrage movement. However, her working class roots conflicted with the upper class movement and she was fired less than a year later. Eventually she got married, had children, and became a housewife and consumer advocate, but she never drifted far from the union movement. She led eviction protests and organized relief for working strikers. To her dying day she was an unapologetic communist.
At the end of her life she entered the Jewish Home for the Aged in Los Angeles. She organized the orderlies into a union and prodded the management to join the United Farm Worker’s boycott of grapes. Clara Lemlich passed away on July 12, 1982 at age 96.
Check out this PBS documentary made at the 100th anniversary of the fire. About 53 minutes, but lots of interesting background and detail.