Tuesday, March 8, 2016

An Organizer of Women

The fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on March 25, 1911, in which 146 workers died, was a major turning point in labor organization in the United States. The terrible tragedy brought public attention to a fight in which then 24 year old Clara Lemlich (Shavelson) was already involved.

Born in Gorodok, Russia (Ukraine), in 1886, Lemlich came with her family to the United States in 1903, following the Kishinev Pogroms. Lemlich began employment in one of the many sweatshops of the garment industry and found herself working 11 hours a day, six days a week. As is now well-known, the conditions were terrible and the workers had, as Lemlich noted, “the status of machines.” She joined the executive board of a local chapter of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWA).

Lemlich quickly discovered that the Union’s title described the type of factories in which they organized, not the workers for whom they fought. Her push to increase the involvement of women workers in the union met with great resistence. In November 1909, Lemlich proved the power of the working women when she led what is now known as the Uprising of the Twenty Thousand - a multi-week general strike. It is noted that her rousing speech was in Yiddish, and the crowd joined her in declaring in Yiddish: “If I turn traitor to the cause I now pledge, may this hand wither from the arm I now raise.”

While the Uprising brought some concessions, they were not enough to prevent the Triangle Factory tragedy. Lemlich found herself blacklisted as a union organizer. She then transferred her political zeal to the suffrage movement and founded the Wage Earner’s Suffrage League. After she married Printer’s Union Activist Joe Shavelson, Lemlich remained an active organizer, even as she raised their three children. She organized housewives against overpriced butchers and created the United Council of Working Class Women (associated with the Communist Party and later called the Progressive Women’s Councils).

Lemlich was involved in numerous other causes, such as protesting nuclear missiles and the Vietnam War, and also fought for tenant’s rights. It is reported that she even organized a union at the Jewish Home for the Aged in Los Angeles, where she lived her last few years.

Clara Lemlich passed away on July 12, 1982 at age 96. This Treat was written in honor of International Women's Day, which was  originally called International Working Women's Day.

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