‘The Strike of the Singers of the Shirt’ by Rose Strunsky from International Socialist Review. Vol. 10 No. 7. January, 1910.

Participants in the Uprising.

A marvelous look at the ‘Uprising of 40,000’ strike of New York City shirt waist workers from its midst by Rose Strunsky. A classic.

‘The Strike of the Singers of the Shirt’ by Rose Strunsky from International Socialist Review. Vol. 10 No. 7. January, 1910.

THE Song of the Shirt in chorus! The fact is momentous. The lyric becomes an epic. The plaint becomes a war-song. It becomes a man song.

It is historic. The singer has come out of the garret. She has dropped her needle and bends over her machine in the crowded tenement of a shopkeeper or in the loft of a manufacturer. There are rows upon rows of machines next to her, and she sings the Song of the Shirt in chorus. It is the death of the woman. It is the birth of the sexless laborer.

As woman she was in the field of labor as man’s scab. She underbid him. She was an accident in the field the stones to be picked up for loading the sling of the capitalist.

‘Feminist labor activist Rose Pastor Stokes (gesturing) and others meet to discuss a strike’

That this most finely developed industrial country should be the first to turn woman into the laborer was historically logical and to be foreseen, and now this great dramatic and vital birth has happened—happened by the new Singers of the Shirt; by the general strike of the forty thousand shirt-waist makers of New York, which began on November 23rd.

This new-born laborer, this woman per se of yesterday, has taken the slug-horn to her lips and called out her armies upon that battlefield where she had been but a tool these hundred years of industrial transition, and, stern-eyed and intense, has made her first charge against the enemy. The act is impressive and significant and has the beauty which comes with a noble growth and the sadness which accompanies beauty and growth. The outbreak was strong and unexpected though for years the foundations of it were laid by quiet propaganda as well as economic necessity.

Voting to strike.

The necessity for organization had been realized by the men almost as soon as the industrial revolution took place. The great difficulty was to make the women see it also now that they had entered upon the field; and to the shame of the men laborers may it be said that they did little to help their sisters realize the necessity and advantages of union. They were blinded by a short-sighted jealousy; they did not seem to realize that they belonged to the same class and that if kept divided, it would be as unfortunate for the men as for the women themselves.

The first conscious effort to organize the women in America was made in 1903, when Miss Mary K. O’Sullivan and William English Walling formed the nucleus of an organization, which was called the Woman’s Trade Union League. A meeting was held during a convention of the American Federation of Labor, and several officers of that organization were induced to attend, in order to aid and give their support. The League, after passing through the hardships of its formative period, succeeded in establishing itself on a firm basis and has proven of great aid in spreading unionism. Already it controls ten thousand organized women, but its seed has fallen farther than its members themselves knew, as was shown by the response of the shirt-waist makers to go out on the general strike, the majority of them being unorganized.

Raising hands for picket duty.

The League led the six months’ strike of the cotton operatives in Fall River, Massachusetts, and worked in behalf of the striking laundry workers of Troy; it took up the bakers’ strike of this city and now, like a careful mother, is tenderly watching and caring for this first large battle of the women workers on the field of labor.

The cause of the general strike was the unrest in the shirt-waist making industry. In September the Triangle Shirt Waist factory struck. A system of sub-contracting, which nearly all the shops have, was going on there with great abuses. The employer hired a man for twenty dollars a week, who in turn contracted shirt-waist makers at any price he could get them for, and so squeezing the wage down to as low as four and five dollars a week. The girls worked from eight in the morning to nine in the evening four times a week and half a day on Sunday. Strange to say, the strike in this factory was caused by the sub-contractor himself. He quarreled with the employer, and in leaving the place, he turned to the girls and told them to follow him. They left their machines and went out. The next day they were urged to come back, but they were then laid off for a month on the pretext of lack of work, while the employers advertised in the Italian, Jewish and English papers for shirtwaist makers.

‘March of the 40,000.’

The strike was on. When the former employees went to the shop to inform the girls who were answering the advertisements that the shop was on strike, they were arrested, mistreated and fined by the courts.

The enemy, too, recognized that the question of sex was gone, that she was no longer woman but laborer, and that she was to be fought in the same way as the man laborer.

From September to October 103 arrests were made for picketing, the girls all being fined. Thugs were immediately employed to guard the scabs and policemen to help the thugs.

‘Arresting the girl strikers for picketing.’

As the conditions in other shops were no better than in this Triangle Shirt-Waist factory, the unrest among the workers grew. On November 23rd it was decided to call mass meetings to discuss conditions. Four halls were crowded. The largest, which was Cooper Union, was presided over by the Woman’s Trade Union League and had among its speakers Mr. Gompers. Gompers made a characteristic speech to them:

“I have never declared for a strike in all my life. I have done my best to prevent strikes, but there comes a time when not to strike rivets the chains on our wrists.”

‘Marching to the hippodrome.’

The shirt-waist makers listened to many more such speeches. They had come to the meeting heavy-hearted and depressed. It meant suffering to continue work under their conditions, and it meant suffering to fight. Would they succeed in the fight? Could they succeed? Would the rest of the girls, for whom it was so difficult to grasp the advantages of solidarity, join in a general strike? Did they have the strength of character, the nobility of purpose?

‘Mass meeting at the Hippodrome.’

The speakers, one after the other, argued about the possibilities of victory and discussed the methods of employers. In the midst of these speeches Clara Lemlich, a dark, pale little girl of about 20, raised her hand to show her desire to speak. She was called upon, and willing hands lifted her on the platform. With the simplicity of genius she said:

Clara Lemlich

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

It was the expression of the heart of the audience. It jumped to its feet and cheered approval. It was for this they had come together, these thousands of isolated girls. Unknown to themselves they had come to unite into one army for the benefit of all. They had come to declare war.

A committee of fifteen was appointed to go to the other halls to announce the decision of the Cooper Union meeting. As the committee entered each well-packed hall and told of the call to arms, it was applauded and cheered for many minutes.

The next day, when the girls in the shops were informed of the general strike, they rose without a question, left their work and went out. Six hundred shops joined the union in a few days. The spontaneous and enthusiastic response to the call came as a great surprise to every one. None had guessed of this latent fire-neither the leaders, nor the Woman’s Trade Union League, nor the girls themselves. None knew that it was there. In forty-eight hours it reached forty thousand girls. Their demands were for the recognition of the union, a twenty per cent, increase in their wages and shorter hours—a fifty-two hour working week.

The Rutgers Square mass meeting during the Shirtwaist strike.

Before the strike was several hours old twenty shops settled and five hundred girls won. The next day forty-one shops settled and seven thousand girls returned to work and each day brings bosses who are willing to settle on union terms.

Morning, afternoon and evening every hall on the East Side and the large halls in the city that could be gotten, were filled with strikers and sympathizers, to discuss ways and means and to encourage each other in the struggle.

The war was on, and the chivalrous instincts in the old veterans of the class struggle came out. Besides the Socialists and the Women’s Trade Union League, the United Hebrew Workers [United Hebrew Trades] sent out committees to help these new militants; the American Federation of Labor offered Mr. Mitchell to give his aid and advice, and Solomon Shindler, the Gompers of the East Side, has directed their forces from the very beginning.

Hundreds of shirtwaist strikers meet at Carnegie Hall wearing sashes marked “arrested.”

It is hard to tell here if it would not have been better to have shown less chivalry and to have let this new army fight its own battle. It is a question in some minds whether the fact that the girls were permitted to sign up with their bosses, while the other three-fourths of their comrades were still on strike, was good tactics for the girls who have returned to work are forced, perhaps, to scab on their sisters by doing the work of the manufacturers who are still on strike.

Yet this is the time-honored method in strikes and can be used to advantage in a long strike as in the case of the strike now on in Sweden, where more than half the workers were permitted to go back to work by the unions so as to support the other half in their fight with the bosses. Moreover, in the shirtwaist making industry, each shop has its own kind of work and therefore there can be no uniform price. Since each shop has to be settled with differently, it is almost impossible to keep the general strike in force.

Strikers selling the New York Call.

If labor is showing its solidarity, so is capital protecting its interests. A shirt-waist manufacturers’ association has already been formed and it threatens to be obstinate and obdurate. Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Hymans, of the National Association of Clothiers, have suggested arbitration. They proposed that two men be elected by the strikers and two by the shirt waist manufacturers, who in turn are to elect two others; and that this committee of six should arbitrate. But the one thing they were firm about was that the strikers would listen to no arbitration if the union were not to be recognized. So far the Shirt-Waist Makers’ Association has not responded to this letter although the strikers have elected their two men, who are Mitchell and Hillquit.*

The first hours of success are now followed by long days of obdurate waiting and fighting. Of course the whole industry is not called out and the manufacturers are sending their goods to be finished in neighboring cities. Still there is no doubt that, with the aid of the great sympathy which the girls have won for themselves among the whole population, they would be victorious in the long run did they have the wherewithal to carry on this fight. Most of them have families to support and two weeks of strike leaves them penniless. The strike committee has already had to buy bread for many of them. Were the union older, or could they expect much support from other unions, their victory would be certain. As it is, seventeen thousand girls were victorious, as to the twenty-three thousand who are out on strike, we must hope for the best.

On the picket line.

A strike is as sexless as a factory, and the laws for the Singers of the Shirt are the same as for the longshoreman and the miner. The employers have the police, thugs and plain-clothes men, the judges and the courts to help them. Against all these the girls pit themselves. Though peaceful picketing is permissible by law, about twenty-five or fifty girls are arrested daily. A boss can point out any one as a striker or charge her with calling “scab,” and she is immediately arrested, and roughly handled; then fined by the judge. In the beginning of the strike the fines were from two to three dollars. They are now from five to ten dollars, or three hundred dollars’ bail, to keep the peace for three months—which defined, means no picketing at all.

Collecting provisions for the strikers.

Moreover, we are beginning to hear threats of the workhouse from these worthy dispensers of the law, and several have already been sentenced. “You girls are getting to be a nuisance and a menace to the community,” said Magistrate Krotel, of the Essex Market Court, “and I am here to do all in my power to stop this disorder. You are acting inexcusably in attacking the policemen (sic!) and the next time you are brought here, I will send you to the workhouse.” This conception of order is equal to the Cossacks, which is the order that comes after the healthful use of the knout.

Rose Schneiderman.

The “Uptown scum” (the proud title which the Woman’s Trade Union League has won for itself by its activities among the working women) decided to march with the girls, on December 2nd, to the Mayor of this city, to inform him of their legal right to picket and to tell him that when they are arrested they are mishandled and often beaten and that the police permit the hired thugs of the employers to assault them without offering protection. Ten thousand girls marched with this delegation through the streets of New York. The sight of these dignified, earnest and intense strikers was inspiring and soul-stirring. Even the Mayor was impressed. He received the committee, he heard their complaint, was astonished at the facts related, which up to now, in the stress of his work, had escaped his notice, and promised to investigate. But over a week has passed, and the fines still go on depleting the precious treasury of the union, which ought to go for bread for the strikers, and it is easily imagined that the treatment of the combined force of unrestrained thugs, Pinkertons and police is not gentle.

If public opinion alone could win a strike, this one would surely be won, for the dramatic qualities and beauty of this first battle of women workers has not failed to escape every class except those who are financially interested in their defeat. The woman’s suffrage movement seems to be eager to help them (though it doesn’t forget to help itself in the meantime), and Mrs. Belmont, on December 5th, hired the Hippodrome, the largest theatre in the city of New York, for the purpose of having the story of the strikers told and spreading sympathy for them among all classes and to teach them women’s suffrage. Mrs. Rose Pastor Stokes and Leonora O’Reilly represented the Socialist and union point of view, and Dr. Anna H. Shaw spoke as a woman suffragist, with the cause of the working girls in her heart. The Colony Club, that most exclusive and fashionable women’s club in the city, with Mrs. Egerton Winthrop and Miss Anne Morgan as hostesses, has invited these girls, for the purpose of hearing their story and spreading it to the public.

Shirtwaist workers shutting it down.

The fight is alive and keen. There is no quiet sitting down and waiting for results. Not a day passes without some spectacular effect, some fight brilliantly managed; some meeting where enthusiasm is roused and courage strengthened.

Here lies the special interest of this strike. It is the psychology which is displayed in it that is more wonderful than the facts themselves, coldly described. We cannot measure such movements by net results, and the strike will be a success even if it fails; it will be a successful failure. The girls have won for themselves the knowledge of united strength, the consciousness of their united power, and the realization that when the Song of the Shirt is sung in chorus, they drop forever the time-worn slavery of the woman sitting alone with “fingers weary and worn,” plying her needle from sunrise to midnight, but that they have their place with their brothers in the fight of Labor. They become comrades and equals on this battlefield.

Rose Strunsky.

And so much we know today: That seventeen thousand women have bettered their conditions and that the spirit of solidarity has entered the hearts of forty thousand Singers of the Shirt.

*The latest report is that the shirt-waist manufacturers have appointed their two men, T. H. Hyman and H. T. Callahan and that after a three hours’ conference with Mitchell and Hillquit have come to a deadlock. The manufacturers refuse to recognize the union and insist on an open shop, though they are willing to grant increase in wages and shorter hours. The representatives of labor refuse to arbitrate in any other way than on a union basis. It is reported that the manufacturers have decided to give new instructions to their representatives.—December 11.

The International Socialist Review (ISR) was published monthly in Chicago from 1900 until 1918 by Charles H. Kerr and critically loyal to the Socialist Party of America. It is one of the essential publications in U.S. left history. During the editorship of A.M. Simons it was largely theoretical and moderate. In 1908, Charles H. Kerr took over as editor with strong influence from Mary E Marcy. The magazine became the foremost proponent of the SP’s left wing growing to tens of thousands of subscribers. It remained revolutionary in outlook and anti-militarist during World War One. It liberally used photographs and images, with news, theory, arts and organizing in its pages. It articles, reports and essays are an invaluable record of the U.S. class struggle and the development of Marxism in the decades before the Soviet experience. It was closed down in government repression in 1918. PDF of full issue:

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/isr/v10n07-jan-1910-ISR-gog-LB-cov.pdf

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