1909 Uprising and 1910 Cloakmakers Strike

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Background

Women on strike in the 1909 "Uprising of the 20,000"
Women on strike in the 1909 "Uprising of the 20,000". Apic / Getty Images

1909 Uprising of the Twenty Thousand

In 1909, about one-fifth of the workers -- mostly women -- working at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory walked out of their jobs in a spontaneous strike in protest of working conditions. Owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris then locked out all the workers at the factory, later hiring prostitutes to replace the strikers.

Other workers -- again, mostly women -- walked out of other garment industry shops in Manhattan.

The strike came to be called the "Uprising of the Twenty Thousand" though it's now estimated that as many as 40,000 participated by its end.

The Women's Trade Union League (WTUL), an alliance of wealthy women and working women, supported the strikers, trying to protect them from routinely being arrested by the New York police and from being beaten by management-hired thugs.

The WTUL also helped organize a meeting at Cooper Union. Among those who addressed the strikers there was American Federation of Labor (AFL) president Samuel Gompers, who endorsed the strike and called on the strikers to organize to better challenge employers to improve working conditions.

A fiery speech by Clara Lemlich, who worked in a garment shop owned by Louis Leiserson and who had been beaten by thugs as the walkout began, moved the audience, and when she said, "I move that we go on a general strike!" she had the support of most of those there for an extended strike.

Many more workers joined the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU).

The "uprising" and strike lasted a total of fourteen weeks. The ILGWU then negotiated a settlement with factory owners, in which they won some concessions on wages and working conditions. But Blanck and Harris of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory refused to sign the agreement, resuming business.

1910 Cloakmakers' Strike - the Great Revolt

On July 7, 1910, another large strike hit the garment factories of Manhattan, building on the "Uprising of the 20,000" the previous year.

About 60,000 cloakmakers left their jobs, backed by the ILGWU (International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union). The factories formed their own protective association. Both strikers and factory owners were largely Jewish.  Strikers also included many Italians.  Most of the strikers were men.

At the initiation of A. Lincoln Filene, owner of the Boston-based department store, a reformer and social worker, Meyer Bloomfield, convinced both the union and the protective association to allow Louis Brandeis, then a prominent Boston-area lawyer, to oversee negotiations, and to try to get both sides to withdraw from attempts to use courts to settle the strike.

The settlement led to a Joint Board of Sanitary Control being established, where labor and management agreed to cooperate in establishing standards above the legal minimums for factory working conditions, and also agreed to cooperatively monitor and enforce the standards.

This strike settlement, unlike the 1909 settlement, resulted in union recognition for the ILGWU by some of the garment factories, allowed for the union to recruit workers to the factories (a "union standard," not quite a "union shop"), and provided for disputes to be handled through arbitration rather than strikes.

The settlement also established a 50 hour work week, overtime pay and holiday time off.

Louis Brandeis was instrumental in negotiating the settlement.

Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor, called it "more than a strike" -- it was "an industrial revolution" because it brought the union into partnership with the textile industry in determining workers' rights.

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