This is the story of the Philadelphia Shirtwaist Strike of 1909-1910. Immigrant women fought for their rights by organizing and striking. Mother Jones encouraged the strikers to be unafraid to “fill the jails” for their rights.
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With and Within the New York Strike
Philadelphia’s Shirtwaist Strike of 1909 is encompassed by the New York Shirtwaist Strike both chronologically, by beginning after and ending before the New York strike ceased, and in the historiography of garment strikes, by going practically unresearched. The Uprising of 20,000 in New York, sparked into action by Clara Lemlich’s November 22nd declaration for a general garment strike, caused thousands of workers to leave factories and picket in the streets the following day. The sheer number of strikers and press coverage led to dozens of works analyzing the largest female strike effort to date.
However, the strike precipitated by New York manufacturers shipping work out to Philadelphia factories received less coverage, both by newspapers of the time and by historians after the fact. Regardless, Philadelphia did strike. Philadelphia garment workers, urged by Rose Pastor Stokes and other union organizers, decided to stand in solidarity with their New York sisters. On December 20th, 1909, approximately 7,000 Philadelphia shirtwaist working girls walked out of factories to strike. Their strike would grow to include 15,000
This exhibit questions the historiography by focusing on Philadelphia’s differences in strategy, organization, and choice of alliance—ultimately questioning which strike reached its goals more effectively and why?
Strike Issues : Demands, Solidarity, Coalition, Alliances
Shirtwaist Strikers demanded union recognition, shorter work days, uniform wage scales, and increase in wages in both Philadelphia and New York. In both cities, the majority of strikers that picketed, fought off police and strikebreakers, and sustained the striking effort were female, Jewish immigrants. However, New York’s strike was so heavily supported by the “mink brigade”—a nickname given to the middle and upper-class suffragists and society women that supported reform causes— that thousands of working class women were overshadowed. Anne Morgan, the daughter of millionaire financier JP Morgan, and Alva Belmont, first married to the heir of the Vanderbilt fortune and then to a banker by the name of Oliver Belmont, gained authority as labor leaders and organizers of the New York strike.
While these entanglements with seemed to gain the striker sympathy from the public, it seemed to harm the strike in the end. Clara Lemlich felt that upper and middle class women of New York acted condescendingly towards strikers and manipulated them with little regard for the strike or the union.
Newspapers of the era focus heavily on the involvement of society women in both New York and Philadelphia strikes, however differences of the terms of involvement of wealthy women between these cities existed.
Encouraged by Mother Jones, a well-known labor organizer, to exclude wealthy women from their strike, Philadelphia girls maintained control of their labor movement. “It’s not a Mrs. Belmont or an Anne Morgan that we want,” claimed Mother Jones, “but independent workers who will assert their rights…We don’t want charity brigades or temperance lecturers…if they will leave us alone we will come out alright.”
While Philadelphia society women fundraised and provided bail to sustain the strike, they never gained control. This division of responsibilities in the Philadelphia strike created a short-term, cross-class alliance. Working women maintained dominance in this movement because their workplaces and wages and bodies were in question. Society women, who lacked the experience of socioeconomic oppression at the hands of shirtwaist manufacturers, could only be allies, not leaders, of the strike.
Working class women and union organizers from the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) maintained a non-hierarchal authority over their strike and society women felt their contributed to the cause through financially sustaining the strike.
Role of Gender, Ethnicity, and Community.
Many of the histories of the Philadelphia Shirtwaist Strike focus on the overwhelming female-centered organization of the strike rooted in Jewish neighborhoods and working-class solidarity. The experience of wage labor, living in ethnically Jewish communities, and being women, shaped female consciousness in the garment strikes. Jewish ethnic identity provided strikers with a community and a connection to the old world socialist roots.
These intersection of gender, class, and ethnicity created solidarity, not idealistic notions of common womanhood. In Jewish culture women worked to support their families, seeing it as both legitimate and necessary, and were the center of economic life in their shtetl, or small Jewish town. Coming from a separate cultural history than American women, Jewish women developed a separate consciousness about work, class, gender that allowed them to see striking as civic participation to protect their community, culture, class, and family. Many women radicalize during this strike to go on to become future labor organizers, like Ida Mayerson (also spelled Myerson and Meyerson in different publications). This strike allowed immigrant women a voice.
Philadelphia’s strike maintained solidarity until the end. Manufacturers of the largest garment companies negotiated an end to the strike with union representatives, such as Abraham Rosenberg of the ILGWU. The strike ended with all manufacturers agreeing to increases in wages, reduction of work week hours, end of the practice of charging workers for needles, and recognition for unions. The strike terms were negotiated on the February 5th, on the 6th the terms were presented to strikers, and by the 8th strikers marched in parades to ratify the agreement.
Meanwhile, the New York Shirtwaist Strike began to splinter. Individual companies began to settle with their employees, slowly decreasing the number of strikers throughout February and ending the strike altogether. While some striker did achieve union recognition, large companies like Leiserson and Triangle Shirtwaist Co. did not grant union rights to employees.
However, overall most strikers gained some increase in wages, reduction of the work week, and some paid legal holidays. However, this would not resolve the problems of either city. Philadelphia and New York would both host textile strikes in the future.
Which city’s 1909 shirtwaist strike was more successful for its time?
Bibliography of secondary sources
Eisenstein, Sarah. Give Us Bread But Give Us Roses: Working Women’s Consciousness In The United States, 1890 To The First World War. London : Routledge, 2013.
Enstad, Nan. Ladies Of Labor, Girls Of Adventure: Working Women, Popular Culture, And Labor Politics At The Turn Of The Twentieth Century. New York : Columbia University Press, 1999.
Glenn, Susan A. Daughters of the Shtetl: Life and Labor in the Immigrant Generation. Ithaca : Cornell University Press, 1990.
Hughes, Gwendolyn Salisbury. Mothers in Industry. New York: Arno Press, 1977.
Klaczynska, Barbara Mary. “Working Women in Philadelphia, 1900-1930.” Ph.D. diss. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Microfilms, 1976.
Kornacki, Julianne. “Revealing Division: The Philadelphia Shirtwaist Strike, the Jewish Community, and Republican Machine Politics, 1909-1910.” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, Vol. 80, no. 3 (Summer 2013): 364-400.
Roydhouse, Marion W. Women of Industry and Reform: Shaping the History of Pennsylvania, 1865-1940. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania Historical Association, 2007.
Sidorick, Daniel. “The “Girl Army”: The Philadelphia Shirtwaist Strike of 1909-1910.” Pennsylvania History. 71, no. 3 (2004): 323-369.