In 1909, the predominantly immigrant and female workers in New York City’s garment industry staged a series of job walkouts that led to a massive general strike involving more than 20,000 workers. Clara Lemlich, a Jewish immigrant from the Ukraine and a shirtwaist worker, emerged as a key organizer and speaker. In 1909, Lemlich was in her early 20s, but the press continually referred to her as a teenager, reflecting the ages of many of the female shirtwaist workers. An unprovoked attack on Lemlich and her fellow female strikers by anti-union thugs was recorded by New York Sun correspondent McAlister Coleman. He retold the story years later in his article, “All of Which I Saw,” published in the Progressive in 1950.
The girls, headed by teen-age Clara Lemlich, described by union organizers as a “pint of trouble for the bosses,” began singing Italian and Russian working-class songs as they paced in twos before the factory door. Of a sudden, around the corner came a dozen tough-looking customers, for whom the union label “gorilla” seemed well-chosen.
“Stand fast, girls,” called Clara, and then the thugs rushed the line, knocking Clara to her knees, striking at the pickets, opening the way for a group of frightened scabs to slip through the broken line. Fancy ladies from the Allen Street red-light district climbed out of cabs to cheer on the gorillas. There was a confused melee of scratching, screaming girls and fist-swinging men and then a patrol wagon arrived. The thugs ran off as the cops pushed Clara and two other badly beaten girls into the wagon.
I followed the rest of the retreating pickets to the union hall, a few blocks away. There a relief station had been set up where one bottle of milk and a loaf of bread were given to strikers with small children in their families. There for the first time in my comfortably sheltered, Upper West Side life, I saw real hunger on the faces of my fellow Americans in the richest city in the world.
Source: McAlister Coleman, “All Of Which I Saw,” Progressive May 1950, 25.