The Waistmakers' Revolt
by Alexandra Hanson-Harding
In the early 1900s, women and girls worked under dreadful conditions, making
clothes in sweatshops. In 1909, they took action.
*Fictional character; all others were real people.
*Malka, a factory worker
*Foreman at a factory
*Chaya, a factory worker
*Pinna, a factory worker
*Police officer #1
Clara Lemlich, a factory worker and union organizer
Benjamin Feigenbaum, chairman of a union meeting
Crowd, people at a union meeting
Mary Dreier, a wealthy woman and union leader
Anne Morgan, a rich heiress
Pauline Newman, a union organizer
Violet Pike, a college student
*Owner of a factory
*Thug, hired by factory owner
*Police officer #2
*Protester, woman in a picket line
"We wore cheap clothes, lived in cheap tenements, ate cheap food. There
was nothing to look forward to, nothing to expect the next day to be better."
That is what Pauline Newman said about her days as a worker in a New York City
In the early 1900s, many Jewish and Italian women worked in
U.S. factories making shirtwaists, a popular kind of women's garment. More than
500 shirtwaist factories in New York City employed about 30,000 workers, most
of them young women aged 16-21.
Working conditions were horrible: Women spent long hours bent
over sewing machines. Their salaries, which averaged about $6 a week, were barely
enough to feed and house them. Their pay was half that of men doing the same
kind of work.
Some people said that the women should organize themselves
into a union, so that they could fight together for better working conditions.
In 1903, women founded the Women's Trade Union League. Three years later, Local
No. 25 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) was founded.
The two groups worked together. Few male union leaders took female workers seriously.
In 1909, however, that began to change.
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Narrator A: A shirtwaist factory, fall of 1909. Three
17-year-old girls, recent Jewish immigrants from Russia, are standing in line
Malka (crying): What am I going to do? I lost two of
my work tickets. If I don't get paid, my family doesn't eat.
Foreman: No tickets, no pay.
Chaya: It isn't fair! You give us these little tickets
for doing piecework. You know how easy it is to lose them! Malka did the work!
It's just a trick to cheat us out of our wages.
Foreman: I don't make the rules. If you don't like it,
tell the union.
Pinna: You know that we don't have a union here! Maybe
if we did, we wouldn't have to pay for the thread and electricity we use!
Chaya: Or rent the boxes we sit on!
Pinna: Or have to work till late at night with no overtime
Chaya: Or get paid so little that we can barely survive!
Foreman: Are you girls going to be troublemakers? If
so, get out!
Malka (wiping her eyes): They didn't mean it, sir. They're
just upset for me.
Foreman: Well, you'd better be careful! There are plenty
of other people to take your jobs if you don't want 'em.
Narrator A: That night, the three young women walk home
Chaya: Malka, I can help you out.
Pinna: Me, too.
Malka: My pride says not to accept but I promise I'll
pay you back.
Pinna: It makes me so mad: We're paid less than men,
but our families need our paychecks just as much!
Chaya: Something has to change!
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Narrator B: In the fall of 1909, workers in several
factories go on strike. On November 4, Mary Dreier, head of the Women's Trade
Union League, is arrested for speaking to a striker. The police quickly release
Dreier when they learn who she is.
Police officer #1: Why didn't you tell me you was a rich lady? I'd
never have arrested you in the world.
Narrator B: The officer's remark is widely reported
in newspapers. Many workers are outraged that wealth can make such a difference
in how the police treat people. On November 22, the Women's Trade Union League
and the ILGWU hold a joint meeting to talk about a general strike a strike of the workers of an entire industry, not just one factory. Many speakers
urge the workers to be cautious. Then, a 19-year-old worker who is barely five
feet tall climbs onto the stage.
Clara Lemlich: I have listened to all of these speakers,
and I have no further patience for more talk. I say that we go on a general
Narrator B: The crowd jumps to its feet as people cheer,
stamp, and wave handkerchiefs in agreement.
Benjamin Feigenbaum: Will you take the old Hebrew oath?
Narrator B: Three thousand people lift their right arms
and repeat after him:
Crowd: If I turn traitor to the cause I now pledge,
may this hand wither from the arm I now raise.
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Narrator C: The next day, workers report to their jobs,
unsure what to do. Then they stand up and walk out. The streets are crowded
with workers. Traffic is completely stopped. That day, 25,000 workers leave
their jobs. Within the next few days, the number increases to nearly 30,000.
Pinna: I can't believe it! Why, there are thousands of workers out
Malka: What a show of strength!
Chaya: With this kind of turnout, the owners will have
to make changes.
Narrator C : In the first four days of the strike, almost
half of the original 25,000 strikers win contracts for better working conditions
and return to work. Thousands of workers line up to join the union. In the union
office . . .
Mary Dreier: We're going to need publicity, so people
will know what we're trying to accomplish. We'll need money to help pay the
strikers and bail them out of jail. We'll have to get someone to organize the
picket lines. This won't be easy.
Narrator C: To raise money, the union sends powerful
speakers to wealthy women's clubs in New England and upstate New York. Pauline
Newman, a former factory worker, is one such speaker. Wealthy women raise money
for the strikers. They also build popular sympathy for the strikers by talking
to newspaper reporters. Anne Morgan, a rich heiress, speaks to editors of The
New York Times :
Anne Morgan: When you hear of a woman who presses 40
dozen skirts for only eight dollars a week, something must be wrong.
Narrator C: The striking female workers become so popular
that a song is written about them: "Heaven Will Protect the Working Girl."
Speakers also go to women's colleges.
Pauline Newman: Imagine living on six dollars a week,
sleeping on a mattress on a kitchen floor, and going hungry for weeks just to
buy a winter jacket.
Violet Pike: Why, that is terrible! I've got to find
a way to help!
Narrator C: Pike leaves Vassar College and goes to New
York City. She joins dozens of young college women who march with striking workers
in the picket line. The police are reluctant to arrest the rich girls. Pike
talks with a worker who is about to cross the picket lines and go to work in
Pike: Miss, do you really want to put these other girls
out of work? Do you want to be a scab [strikebreaker]?
Narrator C: The owner comes out of his factory and begins
Owner: You don't understand this is a cutthroat business.
We have to make our products as cheaply as possible or we won't be able to sell
them for a profit and if we don't make a profit, we don't survive.
Pike: Look at these girls! Half of them don't have the
money to buy a winter coat in December and you're saying that you won't survive?
If all the factory owners would pay a living wage, then you'd all survive!
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Narrator D: The owners hire thugs to harass the protesters.
The police side with the owners and arrest the young women on any excuse.
Thug (to a woman on the picket line) : Hey,
keep away from me!
Narrator D: He pushes the woman against the wall.
Thug: Hey, officer, officer! She hurt my little finger.
Police officer #2: Why, that's assault!
Protester: But I didn't do anything!
Police officer #2: Oh, and now you're resisting arrest,
too? They'll teach you a lesson about how to behave in jail.
Narrator D: By Christmas, more than 700 women have been
arrested. Like the police, most of the judges are harsh with the young protesters.
Judge #1: You have no right to picket. Every time you
go down there, you will get what is coming to you and I shall not interfere.
Judge #2: You are on strike against God and nature,
whose prime law is that man shall earn his bread by the sweat of his brow.
Narrator D: Nineteen young women are jailed. The rest
are fined. Still, the strikers refuse to give in. As soon as they are set free,
most of them return to the picket lines.
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Narrator E: As the strike drags on, the union becomes
desperate for money. There is not enough money to help many of the strikers
pay for their rent or food. Most of the $60,000 dollar strike fund is spent
on bailing young women out of jail. One day, while they are picketing, Pinna
Chaya: Oh, no! Here, let's get her into this stairwell to get warm!
Malka: Pinna, when did you last eat?
Pinna (weakly) : I had a roll yesterday. You
know, my mother is sick . . . She needs medicine.
Chaya: And here you are, out in the bitter cold!
Narrator E: Chaya reaches into her pocket and pulls
out a piece of bread.
Chaya: Here, eat this. Now let's get you home to rest.
Narrator E: On December 23, Chaya visits Pinna at home.
Chaya: I have news: The bosses and the union have worked
out a deal. We'll get shorter hours and higher wages. But the owners won't let
us keep the union. They say that half a loaf is better than none. We have to
vote on the offer. What do you think?
Pinna: If we don't keep the union, the owners can wait
a few months and change everything back to the way it was before. Our struggle
will have been for nothing!
Chaya: You're right. I'm voting no.
Narrator E: On December 27, the women vote no by a big
majority and reject the proposed agreement.
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The strike dragged on through January 1910, during one of the
coldest winters on record. More women got sick, and the newspapers began to
lose interest. Finally, on February 15, the strike came to an end. The factory
owners agreed to improve working conditions but some of the largest employers
refused to recognize the unions. Still, the young women had much to be proud
of. They had shown that they could organize for a cause and could be as tough
and determined as men. Other strikers modeled themselves on the shirtwaist workers'
strike. A song was written about them:
Hail the waistmakers of
Making their stand on the
Breaking the power of those
Pointing the way, smashing
Victory was followed by tragedy. In 1910, a fire broke out in
the Triangle Shirtwaist
Factory in New York City. Many of the factory's doors were locked shut,
trapping workers. More than 145 people, most of them young women, were killed.
After this widely reported tragedy, many new factory-safety laws were passed.
But for those 145 workers, the laws came too late.
Adapted from Junior Scholastic, March 9, 1998
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