Clara Lemlich made a spontaneous speech at Cooper Union on this date in 1909 that sparked the “Uprising of the 20,000,” an industry-wide strike mobilized by the new International Ladies Garment Workers Union.
“I want to say a few words!” shouted Lemlich, a 23-year-old garment worker (usually described as 19), following AFL leader Samuel Gompers’ speech. She was a member of the ILGWU’s executive board and had been arrested seventeen times, with broken ribs to show for it. “I have no further patience for talk,” she said upon reaching the podium, “as I am one of those who feels and suffers from the things pictured. I move that we go on a general strike . . . now!” The strike lasted until February and was met with constant violence, but at its end the union had increased its membership from thehundreds to some twenty thousand, and most of the major sweatshop owners had signed union contracts — except for the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. Lemlich remained an activist throughout her life until her death in 1982 at 96. (For a brief Jewish Currents interview with Clara Lemlich in the year of her death, visit our archive and scan down to “L.”)
“If I turn traitor to the cause I now pledge, may this hand wither from the arm I now raise.” —Traditional Yiddish oath, led in recitation by Clara Lemlich after the strike resolution passed
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