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1909 Uprising of the Twenty Thousand

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Background

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Triangle Shirtwaist Factory building, New York City.

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory building, New York City.

Courtesy Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library

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.

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