Mar 10, 2019
One hundred and ten years ago, garment workers in New York City – most of them women – threw themselves into a militant strike, demanding higher wages and an end to long work days. In the same year, the Socialist Party organized a demonstration demanding the right to vote for women, calling it Women Workers Day.
The strike, which was later commemorated in countries around the world, started in a garment industry sweatshop. Fed up with conditions, a few dozen women at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, walked out. The factory owners violently drove out the rest and locked their doors. Workers from other shops, outraged that the bosses considered them less than their machines, joined the strike. They gathered outside Cooper Union – the very hall where Frederick Douglass had spoken, celebrating the Emancipation Proclamation, 46 years before.
A young Ukrainian Jewish immigrant, Clara Lemlich, spoke from the front steps. “I am a working girl, one of those who are on strike against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in general terms. What we are here for is to decide whether we shall strike or shall not strike.”
Nearly a thousand workers, mostly women, mostly immigrant, voted to strike. So it began. It spread rapidly and would soon be called, “The Uprising of the 20,000.” The strikers faced violence from cops and from gangsters. They faced hunger. Vicious politicians called them criminals and terrorists. Speaking Yiddish, Italian, Ukrainian, German or Hungarian, they often didn’t speak each other’s language.
But their strike spread. They shut down the garment industry and other sweat shops in New York. What started out as “the uprising of the 20,000,” became “an insurrection of the 40,000.” Fourteen weeks after it started, the garment bosses gave in. Striking women workers had imposed shorter hours of work and higher pay.
Just months after the end of the strike, Socialist parties in many countries issued a call for an “international women workers day,” a day for women workers around the world to stop work. The very first International Women’s Day was celebrated the next year on March 19, 1911, with strikes by women workers in dozens of countries. Born in the U.S., this working class holiday quickly spread to workers around the world.
Six years later, March 9, women workers in Russia stopped work to demonstrate for an end to World War I and food for their children. It was the opening battle of a revolution that threw out the czarist regime, wealthy landowners and the capitalist class. Workers began to organize and run their own society.
In none of these struggles did workers win permanently. The bosses still owned and ran the garment industry – and profit was still their focus. On March 25, 1911, the same Triangle Shirtwaist Factory erupted in fire. Its owners had locked all the doors so workers couldn’t walk out. They were trapped in an inferno – 146 people were killed, women, men, young teenage girls, young children.
After the Revolution in Russia, the international capitalist class still owned and controlled the wealth and productive capacity of the rest of the world. And they used it – and their armies – to starve out the Russian revolution.
So long as capitalism endures, one struggle alone can’t bring about lasting change. That doesn’t mean it’s a mistake to struggle. It means we have to take every fight as far as it can go, try to spread it, then prepare for the next one.
Our problem today is not too many struggles. Our problem is too few. We’ve forgotten what those women workers in New York and Russia knew in their bones: without struggle, there is no progress.
One struggle won’t change everything wrong today. But one struggle can start to overcome the divisions that keep working people apart. One struggle that begins for wages and shorter hours can spread to other workers, other industries, other countries. One struggle could begin fights that end up finally dismantling the capitalist system.