Lemlich was born March 28, 1886 in the Ukrainian village of Gorodok to a Jewish family. Raised in a predominantly Yiddish-speaking village, young Lemlich learned to read Russian over her parents' objections, sewing buttonholes and writing letters for illiterate neighbors to raise money for her books. After a neighbor introduced her to revolutionary literature, Lemlich became a committed socialist. She immigrated to the United States with her family in 1903, following a pogrom in Kishinev.
Lemlich was able to find a job in the garment industry upon her arrival in New York. Conditions there had become even worse since the turn of the century, as the new industrial sewing machine allowed employers to demand twice as much production from their employees, who often had to supply their own machines and carry them to and from work. Lemlich, along with many of her co-workers, rebelled against the long hours, low pay, lack of opportunities for advancement, and humiliating treatment from supervisors. Lemlich became involved in the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union and was elected to the executive board of Local 25 of the ILGWU.
Lemlich quickly made a name for herself among her fellow workers, leading several strikes of shirtwaist makers and challenging the mostly male leadership of the union to organize women garment workers. She combined boldness with a good deal of charm (she was known for her fine singing voice) and personal bravery (she returned to the picket line in 1909 after having several ribs broken when gangsters hired by the employers attacked the picketers).
Lemlich came to the attention of the outside world at the mass meeting held at Cooper Union on November 22, 1909 to rally support for the striking shirtwaist workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company and Leiserson Company. After the leading figures of the American labor movement and socialist leaders of the Lower East Side spoke in general terms about the need for solidarity and preparedness, Lemlich demanded the opportunity to speak. Lifted onto the platform she demanded action:
- "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."
The crowd responded enthusiastically and, after taking a traditional Yiddish oath — "If I turn traitor to the cause I now pledge, may this hand wither from the arm I now raise" — voted for a general strike. Approximately 20,000 out of the 32,000 workers in the shirtwaist trade walked out in the next two days; this would become known as the Uprising of the 20,000. Lemlich took a leading role in bringing workers out, speaking at rallies until she lost her voice. The strike lasted until February 10, 1910, producing union contracts at almost every shop, but not at Triangle Shirtwaist.
Triangle Shirtwaist became a synonym for "sweatshop" during the following year. On March 25th, 1911, nearly 150 garment workers died as a result of a fire that consumed the factory. Workers were either burned to death or died jumping to escape the flames. Lemlich searched through the armory where the dead had been taken to search for a missing cousin; a newspaper reporter described her as convulsed by hysterical laughter and tears when she did not find her.
Read more about this topic: Clara Lemlich
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