The Uprising of the Twenty Thousand

The 1909-1910 Shirtwaist Workers' Strike, sometimes called the Uprising of the Twenty Thousand, marked a turning point in women’s involvement in the labor movement in the United States. Although female workers had long been attracted to the labor movement, mainly in the hopes of gaining shorter work days, labor unions were dominated by male members up through the Civil War and did not begin heavily recruiting women until the turn of the century.1 Before the Shirtwaist Workers' Strike, most of the large strikes were dominated by men. However, most of the workers who participated in the Shirtwaist Workers' Strike were women. The victories won by the Uprising of the Twenty Thousand proved that women could be a valuable asset to the labor movement.

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Two women picketing during the 1909 Shirtwaist Strike2

The women who participated in the strike came from various economic backgrounds, and for a time, the strike created unity between women of various social classes and ethnicities. While the strikers were from the working class, they received help from women from wealthier classes. During the time, most upper class women were usually confined to volunteer work if they wanted to escape the domestic sphere.3 Assisting the strikers financially and occasionally even joining the protests gave leisure class women an opportunity to expand their interests outside of their homes and engage with the public sphere. Fueled by their frustrations, either practical or philosophical, members of many socioeconomic groups brought their own forms of passion and enthusiasm to support the strike.

The massive strike was instigated by workers at the Leiserson Garment Factory and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Workers were frustrated by the low wages, long hours, and high fees imposed on them by their employers. Wages for shirtwaist workers overall had dropped since the 1908 depression, even though the industry was flourishing. In early 1908, most female shirtwaist factory workers earned $12 or $13 a week, but by late 1909, their wages had decreased. They now worked 65 hour weeks for only $9 or $10 per pay period.4 Also, employers often charged their workers fees for supplies like needle and thread, and even for the most basic necessities, like permission to sit in their chairs. This all increased business owners' profits at the cost of working conditions.5

The Triangle Shirtwaist Company, which occupied the top three floors of the Asch Building at 23-29 Washington Place,6 inspired one of the earliest demonstrations during the Uprising of the Twenty Thousand. Clara Lemlich, an immigrant from Ukraine who worked at the Leiserson Factory, organized a group of like-minded garment workers who gathered in Cooper Square on November 26, 1909, to protest Triangle Shirtwaist Company’s unfair practices.7 When factory management learned that some of its employees had joined Local 25 of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), they locked out all 500 workers from their the factory and advertised for new help. Ironically, this caused many of their former workers who had not already joined Local 25 to do so.8

As news of the strike spread, the ILGWU, which at the time had their headquarters at 11 Waverly Place, met at the Cooper Union auditorium to decide whether or not to join the strike. Some two thousand members of the ILGWU gathered to discuss the possibility of going on strike, but the meeting dragged on without reaching a decision.9 Frustrated by the delays, Clara Lemlich, who in addition to initiating the Shirtwaist Strike was also one of the founders of the ILGWU Local 25,10 rose and proclaimed in Yiddish to the room of mostly young Jewish women:

“I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in general terms. What we are here for is to decide whether we shall or shall not strike. I offer a resolution that a general strike be declared now.”11

Following Lemlich’s announcement, the workers finally resolved to go on strike. 80% of the 20,000 workers who went on strike were women.12 The strikers made up nearly 2/3 of the entire shirtwaist workforce.13

The strike was not only supported by the ILGWU, but also by the wealthy women of the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL). WTUL members were the financial backers that made it possible for the strikers to raise awareness about their situation. Whenever a venue was needed for a large event or when protestors needed their fines paid in order to be released from jail, it was WTUL members that provided the funding.14 The fact that many of the strike’s wealthy supporters were high-profile women, like Alva Belmont and Anne Morgan, called more attention to the strike and somewhat tempered the actions of New York law enforcement, as police officers always ran the risk of arresting a woman whose name would make headlines.15 However, the underlying threat of socialism that the strike posed to the leisure class, particularly after the speeches promoting (as Anne Morgan phrased it) “fanatical socialism” at a function held at Carnegie Hall in January of 1910, led to the forming of factions within the WTUL, who quietly ceased their support.16

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Strikers being taken into custody by the police at Jefferson Market Prison17

Many of the strikers who were arrested on the picket lines were tried at the Night Court of the Jefferson Market Courthouse at 6th Avenue and West 10th Street. The Night Court was usually the venue for prostitution cases, and the strikers were purposefully brought to this location to create a sense of shame among the women.18 In the first month of the strike alone, 723 girls were arrested and 19 were sentenced to serve in workhouses.19

Despite the financial burden and personal risk that most of the strikers faced, the Uprising of the Twenty Thousand lasted 14 weeks. The general public’s sympathy for the strikers eventually caused shirtwaist manufacturers to concede to some of the strikers’ demands.20 The work week was reduced to 52 hours, and workers also gained 4 legal holidays with pay.21 Additionally, workers no longer had to pay fines if they could not provide their own supplies.22 The government also took action, and the New York Joint Board of Sanitary Control was formed to investigate working conditions in response to the strike.23 However, some of the strikers' goals were not achieved. For instance, the shirtwaist manufacturers refused to recognize Local 25 of the ILGWU or establish a closed or union shop for their workers.24 Nevertheless, the Uprising of the Twenty Thousand legitimized the ILGWU, which had previously been a fledgling group, and vindicated women's involvement in the labor movement.

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