Opinion — A garment worker’s fight for fairness

Published 1:17 pm Friday, January 28, 2022

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When you do an honest day’s work you should expect an honest day’s pay as well as a safe working environment. Clara Lemlich, an immigrant from Eastern Europe, understood that sentiment. The deplorable working conditions she experienced solidified that belief.

Lemlich was born in Gorodok, Ukraine on March 28, 1886 in a Jewish family. Lemlich was raised in a predominantly Yiddish village and although her parents objected to it she learned to read Russian. The young Lemlich was very ingenuous even then sewing buttonholes and writing letters for illiterate neighbors to earn money for her books. Eventually, Lemlich adopted a socialist ideology and in 1903 immigrated with her family to the United States following organized violence called a pogrom in Kishinev. The word pogrom means “devastation” in Russian and in many of the attacks on Jews the authorities gave their full support. Once arriving in New York she obtained employment in the garment industry as a shirtwaist seamstress. The conditions in these factories were even worse than before since employers, because of the new industrialized sewing machine, demanded twice the production from the women who often had to bring their own machines to and from work. Lemlich and her coworkers suffered through long hours, low pay, little opportunity for advancement and humiliation from their supervisors.

Consequently, Lemlich had enough of this mistreatment. The tenacious activist joined the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) and was elected to the Local 25 ILGWU chapter’s executive board. Lemlich was well known for her leadership among the shirtwaist workers leading several strikes to organize garment workers even experiencing physical harm.

For instance, she suffered several broken ribs when her employer hired thugs to attack picketers. On Nov . 22, 1909 a large rally gathered to support the striking workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company and Leiserson Company. After two hours of listening to company representatives talk back and forth, Lemlich spoke up stating that the time for talk was over and a decision needed to be made to strike or not to strike. As a result about 20,000 out of 32,000 shirtwaist workers walked out which became known as the uprising of the 20,000. The strike lasted until Feb. 10, 1910 which resulted in union contracts for almost every factory except the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.

What happened next would solidify for Lemlich the importance of safety in the workplace and it would prove personal for her. On March 25, 1911 at 4:40 p. m. a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in the Asch Building in New York City, claiming the lives of 146 souls; the youngest were 14 years old. Clara had a cousin who was an employee there. Some burned to death while others jumped from the building to escape the flames. Many hazards could have been avoided if the owners would have put people’s lives over profits. Disasters will happen when you have combustible materials in the workplace and locked exit doors preventing an escape if necessary. Over the years organizations such as the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) and Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) have been established to ensure workplace safety. The above disaster coined the word “sweatshop”.

Moreover, Lemlich established the Wage Earner’s Suffrage League which advocated for fair pay for working class women. Lemlich found time for a personal life marrying Joe Shavelson in 1913 baring him three children Irving, Martha and Rita. The family relocated to East New York and later Brighton Beach and Lemlich continued her activist work. In 1951 Joe passed away and Lemlich retired in 1954 from the garment industry. In 1960 she married Abe Goldman and the couple were married for seven years until his death in 1967. After Abe’s death she moved to California to be near her children. She spent her remaining days at the Jewish Home for the Aged in L. A. While there her community organization skills prevailed persuading the personnel to organize.

Lemlich died at the age of 96 on July 12, 1982 in Los Angeles. Her spitfire attitude never waivered in her quest to fight for fair wages and safe conditions to produce the work employers required. Even when faced with physical assaults she journeyed on like the brave soldier for change that she was. That strength has been present throughout the generations.

Judy Moore, tour guide at The Central High Museum lives in Wylliesburg and can be reached at v5agabond2@gmail.com.