Working Class Heroines #1: Clara Lemlich

There is no better person to start this series than one of my all time inspirations, Clara Lemlich.

At the age of 19, Clara – an immigrant to the US for whom English was a second language – led a strike of over 20,000 garment workers. That was over 100 years ago, but there are some pretty timeless reasons why she’s worth remembering and taking inspiration from.

Clara Lemlich
Clara Lemlich, daring you to have a go if you think you’re hard enough.

She never let anyone get her down
Born in a Ukrainian village to a Jewish family in 1886, Clara was a rebel from the start. Her illiterate parents wouldn’t let her learn to read Russian but she went ahead and did it anyway, paying for her books and lessons by sewing and writing letters.

After fleeing to America from a pogrom in which “47 Jews were killed, 92 severely wounded, 500 slightly wounded and over 700 houses looted and destroyed…and the general cry, “Kill the Jews,” was taken-up all over the city,” Clara started work in New York’s garment industry, where she had to put up with daily humiliation by her bosses, being locked into her dark, dirty and crowded workplace without a toilet, and horrendously low pay. Her reaction?

“I just knew that we had to challenge the awful bosses and stand up for our rights against the terrible working conditions.”

She was brave
Clara never claimed to have organised anything. Her role in the strike of the 20,000, as she explained in an interview at the time, was simply to “motivate” her colleagues into action. Typically modest, she underestimated what this meant. She was risking a severe beating from her bosses by doing so – they had hired thugs to beat up troublemakers.

But she felt she didn’t have a choice: despite horrific working conditions, low pay and brutal treatment by employers the conservative, male union bosses were discouraging the garment workers from going on strike.

Because they were all dickheads, most of them thought that immigrant, unskilled women – who made up the majority of the garment workers – couldn’t be organised into strikes. So at an emergency meeting they themselves had called, they waffled on for over two hours, generalising and spouting wankery about solidarity. Clara wasn’t having any of it:

“They just made me so mad because they talked in such general terms about the need for solidarity and preparedness and all that. Well, you know, just then I asked for the opportunity to speak and I demanded action… I am a working girl, I said, and one of those striking against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in generalities. What we are here for is to decide whether or not to strike. And I offered a resolution that a general strike be declared. I was just saying what all the workers were thinking, but they were just too afraid to say. And so we all walked out of the factories two days later.”

That walk out two days later turned into a strike which lasted almost three months, over a bitter New York winter which the workers started with only a $10 strike fund. In the first month, 723 girls were arrested for striking.  Those hauled up in front of judges were told they were an affront to God. Clara had her ribs broken by gangsters paid by her bosses, but this didn’t stop her getting out on the picket lines each morning, raising money to feed the strikers and their families.

She never, ever gave up
The strike ended in February 1910, after the unions gained huge concessions from bosses: large payrises, a working week reduced from 75 hours to 52, and four holidays a year with pay.

The only company which the unions had been unable to persuade to sign the new agreement was the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, Clara’s old employer. Unsurprisingly, by that point she’d been blacklisted by them and hadn’t been allowed back to the factory, so wasn’t there on the 25th March 1911 when a fire ripped through it, killing 146 workers who had been locked inside by their bosses, who’d become even more abusive after the strike.

Clara rushed to the factory to find a cousin who still worked there and collapsed in hysterics when she couldn’t find her. She’d burned to death. Others had jumped out of windows rather than wait to die. As Clara wept, their bodies were hitting the pavement beside her.

This is a cartoon from the time, but it is almost literally what happened.

I think it’s fair to say anyone else would probably have given up agitating, socialism and organising. But Clara Lemlich never did. Knowing the vote was vital to properly free the working-class women she fought for she went to work for the suffragettes, eventually setting up her own suffrage league for working class women.

After marrying in 1913 and stopping full-time work, she set up a Housewives’ Union, organised boycotts of butchers to protest against high meat prices, protested for nuclear disarmament and against the Vietnam war, supported the unemployed and campaigned for tenants’ rights. She never, ever stopped fighting for people’s rights, or for a better world.

At the time of her death, in an old people’s home in LA, she had persuaded the management to join in a UFW boycott and was prodding her own care workers into organising themselves into a union.

Let’s all do 2015 the Clara Lemlich way, right?

Some interviews with Clara: (from the year of the Strike of the 20,000)


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