Feb 29, 2016
For eleven weeks, from November 1909 through February 1910, some 20,000 mostly young, Jewish, women workers went on strike against low wages in the New York City garment industry. Their abysmal wages, even lower than men’s in the trade, meant poverty for their families. They were led by women like socialist Clara Zemlich, who thought workers would eventually need to overturn the whole capitalist system in order to get a decent life. This momentous strike would later be called the Uprising of the 20,000.
No one acquainted with labor history will be surprised to hear that the bosses hired thugs. The police arrested hundreds of strikers, after which the courts gave them big fines or time in jail. A judge expressed the usual sentiments against women: “You are striking against God and nature.” Even union leaders disdained them. Samuel Gompers, head of the AFL, said it wasn’t worth organizing women because they would just get married and leave the union.
Nevertheless, by the end of the strike, the women had won a somewhat reduced work week and a bit higher wages. Some 85% of the strikers joined the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.
This wasn’t the only fight organized by women workers in that era. For instance, in May of 1908, women textile workers in Chicago had gone on strike for similar reasons.
It was fights like these that socialists Clara Zetkin and Luise Zeitz commemorated starting in 1911 with International Women’s Day. The first of these drew out an estimated million marchers in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Denmark. To this day, people around the world continue to celebrate women’s fight for a decent life every year on March 8.