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The Shirtwaist Strike and Its Significance


Summer 1910 — Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) Conference, Lake George, NY


When thirty thousand makers of shirt-waists, the majority of them women and girls, went out on strike in New York in the autumn of 1909, all classes in the city and even in other communities were aroused to interest. The daily papers devoted whole columns to news of the workers’ struggle, the magazines commented on it, meetings were held in women’s colleges and in clubs to hear the story, and money was contributed in aid of the strikers. Nor did the interests wane through the four months or more of this women’s industrial battle. The strike is over, and its story is no longer news. Yet an event which so stirred a large public to thought and to actions cannot be without permanent significance in illustrating the problems of women’s work, and their relation to the community.

The subject has three parts, a description of the conditions of the trade, an account of the events of the strike, and an analysis of the problems illustrated both by these trade conditions and by the events which grew out of them.

The Conditions of the Trade.

No other recent event has more forcibly illustrated the lack of information regarding trade conditions. Every one was asking questions. The answers were uncertain, vague, and contradictory.

An analogy will make clear the sort of information which the community ought to have regarding its workers in time of peace as well as in the crisis of a battle. On the wall of a factory building in Bond Street is a sign which reads, “This floor will sustain an evenly distributed load of 125 pounds to each square foot.” It ought to be possible to test with equal precision the strength of the worker in the factory.

There would appear to be two main factors involved in the test of the floor; first, the quality of the material of which it is made and the kind of support given by the construction of the building; second, the weight which it is to sustain and its distribution over the floor space. The test of the workers would follow parallel lines.

Corresponding to the weight to be sustained is the kind of work required, its tax upon physical and mental powers, the degree of enjoyment or the degree of hardship which it involves, and the physical conditions of light, ventilation and space in the workroom. Corresponding to even distribution of the weight are the daily hours of labor, and the regularity of employment. Work which may be enjoyable and stimulating if confined to eight hours may become a severe physical strain if prolonged through a day and a night even if the following day and night be a rest period. If a normal year’s work be crowded into rush seasons, followed by months in which both work and wages are lacking, the sustaining power of the workers is not receiving a fair test.

Corresponding to the quality of the floor are the physical condition of the worker and her industrial efficiency, her preparation for work and her capacity for the task. Corresponding to the structure of the building and the support thus given to the material of which the floor is made, are the conditions of life in the community in which the worker lives, the buying power of her wages in terms of housing, food, and clothing; her opportunity for recreation and mental improvement; and the possession of her other rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Until we have such precise information as to the actual conditions prevailing in the industries in which women are employed, we shall not be able to establish a standard by which to guage present conditions, or to plan a program of betterment. The shirtwaist strike makes us realize how little information we now possess.

If we turn to the United States Census to find out what knowledge the federal government had of the shirtwaist makers in 1900 when the population was counted and manufactures examined, or in 1905 when another census of manufactures was taken, we find no mention of shirt waists or their makers. They are all grouped under the large heading of “Women’s Clothing-Factory Product.” Of this large group, the Census has something to say about the number at work, their wages during one week in the busy season, and the regularity of their employment. 72,242 makers of women’s clothing were counted in the country, of whom 40,077 were at work in New York. 31.2% in New York earned less than six dollars a week in the busy season. One in five earned ten dollars or more. The whole force in the United States was employed only in the month of March. In July, 25% were out of work. The figures regarding regularity of employment are not given for New York City.

Yet these figures are misleading because they are blurred. There are many distinct trades grouped under this one head and the conditions differ. If their busy seasons come in different months of the year, the figures in each branch may counteract each other and make employment seem more regular than it actually is in any one occupation. A low paid group may balance a high paid group so that the wage statistics will not apply to either one of them.

In the statistics of the New York State Department of Labor the shirtwaist makers are grouped with all makers of white goods, and the weekly working hours of the whole group are recorded as follows:


51 hours or less- 4,554—- 5%
52-57 hours 65,033—- 79%
58- 63 hours 12,211—- 15%
Over 63 hours 562—- 1%


Total employees, men and women 82,360 — 100%

Nor had any private organization gathered data regarding the conditions of work of these thirty thousand shirtwaist makers. In January, two months after the large- scale strike had begun, a small committee headed by Dr. Woods Hutchinson, made a brief inquiry for the Survey magazine. It is on the data gathered by this committee, of which I was a member, that I base my sketch of trade conditions. That it is only a sketch will be obvious. It is by no means the least significant fact about this strike that the community, which is always heavily taxed by industrial friction, had no authoritative information regarding the conditions which give rise to so prolonged a trade-battle.

The committee which undertook to sketch these conditions for the Survey, based its study on interviews with employers and workers. In the heat of the battle the opposing interests were naturally biased in their statements and this was a serious obstacle in the way of securing accurate information. Nevertheless, on certain points, the statements of employers and workers were not contradictory. In other points, the probably truth could be arrived at, as Dr. Hutchinson expressed it in the Survey, by adding the statements together and dividing the number of sources of information. A few statements of workers and employers, placed in parallel columns, show the difference in point of view.



What the Employers Say   What the Workers Say.
“We will not be dictated to.”   “They are dictators, czars. A smile from the boss makes you live.”
“We don’t care whether they have a union but we are going to employ whom we choose. It is not right [not] to let any man work who wants to.”   “We want them to care.”
“They want to dictate wages.”   “The union is the only way to protect ourselves.”
“They don’t know how much it costs to make a waist.”   “We want to consult about regulating wages.”
“We have to have sectional work. We cannot get it out so fast the other way. Can’t make as much.”  

“We can’t live on what we get.”

“The worker who does only one part of a waist doesn’t take as much interest in her work. Nor is she as independent in the shop.”


These last remarks refer to the organization of the shop, the way the work is done. This fact of the way the thing is done is of prime importance. On it depends in large measure the worker’s freedom. In the shirtwaist trade, however, it is determined less by the decision of any person, manufacturer or worker, than by the style of shirt- waists.

If a large number of shirtwaists are to be made of uniform style, the tendency will be to divide the work,- to give to one girl cuffs and nothing but cuffs to make, to another, tucks and nothing but tucks, and to another sleeves and nothing but sleeves. The cuff-maker, paid according to the number of cuffs which she can make, will probably prefer to make only cuffs, for the reason that constant repetition of one process will give her the maximum possible speed, and hence the maximum possible wages. The employer interested in filling orders as fast as possible lest the style change and his orders be cancelled, will favor the system which produces the most in the least time.

If, on the other hand, waists are produced in a great variety of styles, with comparatively small numbers in each lot, difference in styles of cuffs and difference in styles of sleeves compels cuff-makers or sleeve-makers to vary the process. To be successful they must not only know how to make a cuff, but they must understand the design of which the cuff is a part. The greater the variety in style, the more desirable it will be to have one worker make the whole waist.

Hence there are two types of organization in shirt-waist shops. Those which make a specialty of more or less uniform and conventional patterns are apt to subdivide the work. Manufacturers of fancy waists in a bewildering variety of styles, are apt to employ workers, each of whom can make a whole waist. The division, however, is not exact. There is enough variety in the conventional waist, and enough uniformity in the fancy waist to make possible either method of organization in any shirtwaist shop.

Possibly it is this interchange of the two types of organization which is responsible for the development of the group system. This is one of the characteristic conditions of the shirt-waist trade. It was also one of the chief grievances of the workers. It is a system whereby the waistmakers in each shop are divided into small groups, each of them headed by a sub-contractor or “inside contractor.” The subcontractor takes a lot of waists from the manufacturer, and divides the cuffs and the sleeves and the other parts of the waist among the members of the group. The manufacturer pays the subcontractor a certain price per dozen, and out of this money, the subcontractor pays the wages to the subordinate workers, his own wages being the difference between the price paid to him by the manufacturer and the wages of the group. This system is really a combination of the advantages of sub-divided labor and the advantages of whole labor. Each worker repeats one process, with little variety, hour after hour, and day after day. Yet the group is small enough and close knit enough so that its head can be responsible for relating each part to the whole. The way in which this system affects other conditions in the trade, influences the methods of teaching learners, curtails the freedom of the workers, and complicates the problems of trade unionism will be discussed when the strike is described.

Although we think of the trade as essentially a woman’s trade, about one in every four shirtwaist makers is a man. As in other trades, the cutting is practically all done by men, but in shirtwaist shops men and boys also share with women the work of operating machines, and pressing. Various other tasks, such as cutting out insertion, cutting off threads, examining and folding, are done chiefly by girls and women. Many of the sub-contractors are men. The total number employed can only be roughly estimated. The number 30,000 has gained currency. There seems to be no very good reason for challenging it, except that the total number of makers of women’s clothing counted in New York in the Census of 1905 was forty thousand and to say that 75% of them were employed in the shirtwaist trade seems to be somewhat exaggerated. Perhaps 20,000 would be a wiser estimate allowing for an increase in the industry since the last Census year.

It will be best to give the trade union secretary’s statement of facts regarding trade conditions, and then to show how these were modified by interviews with other workers and with employers.

The average wage taken the year round, with allowance for lost time in dull season, is five dollars a week for women. If the learners’ wages be left out of account the average is between seven and eight dollars. Sample-makers earn about twelve dollars. Learners average three dollars. About thirty percent are in the learner class. In the middle class, including forty-five per cent of the women, the average is six or seven dollars. The remaining twenty-five per-cent average more than seven dollars. It is possible but exceptional for a girl to earn twenty dollars in a week in the busy season.

Men’s wages are higher, sixteen to eighteen dollars being the average. Sometimes “better” work is given to the men. This accounts in part for the higher wages, but it was repeatedly said that for the same work at the same rate of pay, the men earned more because they worked faster. It was said that they had more at stake with families to support. It was not stated how many of these men were sub-contractors whose wages were paid by the piece and who paid their assistants by the week. The more effective their method of driving their women assistants to turn out a larger number of pieces at the same weekly wage, the higher would be their own wages.

The busy season lasts from October to May. In many shops it has been the practice to keep the best workers and to lay off the others three or four months in the summer. Summer is the dull season in many occupations, especially in the sewing trades, so that it was difficult for the idle shirtwaist makers to find other work.

The hours of work varied in different shops, fifty-six, fifty-eight, or sixty in a week. In rush season, many were compelled to work in the evenings until nine o’clock or later and were given no day of rest in the week, seven days’ employment being not uncommon.

In the main, these facts were not seriously contradicted by the statements of employers or workers, although the employers were inclined to emphasize the maximum possible wages of the busy season without taking into account the number of workers who never attained the maximum, or the loss of earnings in the long dull months. In general, the period of maximum employment lasts five months, from January to May. In January, July, and August there is practically no work. From September to Christmas there is partial employment. “I used to make out by twelve dollars in the busy season,” said one girl, “but in the dull only four. That is I got twelve dollars for about three weeks.” Others, skilled workers, said that they received ten or twelve dollars the year round, but that they struck on behalf of the girls who were working under contractors and receiving six dollars or less in the busy season.

By no means the least important of the conditions in the trade was the petty tyranny and nagging which constantly wore on the nerves and temper of the workers.

“In the busy season we worked overtime until half past eight and nine o’clock every night,” said one striker. “They gave us fifteen cents for supper, that is us week workers, but supper was sitting by the machine and eating and working at the same time. They were awful mean about fines. At first they used to make us lose a half day if we came late, even five minutes. If you went back home it was ten cents more carfare and if you didn’t you had to stay on the street. Later they changed that and fined us one cent for every five minutes we were late. We got that out of our first strike and we got more money on the dozen but do you know what he did? He agreed to give us fifteen cents more on the dozen. Well, when he said that, we were working on waists that had a little point on the front. Later he took that point and ran it down straight. It was just as many stitches for us but he took off the fifteen cents raise.”

“The forelady drives you,” said another. “If you fix a pin in your hair or your collar, before you know it there is a forelady saying to you, ‘It isn’t six o’clock yet. You have no right to fix your collar.'”

“They were mean,” said another. “Once I wanted to go home because my mother was very sick. The boss said, ‘No favors here.’ I was afraid to lose my position so I stayed.”

“They locked the doors so you’d have to stay for night work,” said another.

“We struck first,” said one of the men, “because of the way we were treated. “It is said that we must be slaves. You cannot be a free person. A smile from the boss makes you to live. They were dictators, czars, is really is not right.”

“There are no words which describe that shop,” said a girl, who had been driven to America from Russia by the Kishineff massacre, “It was terrible. Slavery holds nothing worse.”

It seems very probably that this petty tyranny and constant friction was one of the most potent means of driving the workers to so prolonged and widespread a strike.

The Story of the Strike

We have no more reliable information about the cause or the events of the strike than we have about trade conditions. The story can only be sketched from newspaper clippings, and interviews with trade union officers, workers and employers.

The union had been in existence nine years before it came so prominently before the public. It had been organized in August, 19000, under the name of the Ladies’ Waist Makers’ Union of the United Garment Workers of America. Its membership had been so small, at times a mere handful, that it had not been possible to arrange an agreement with a single shop. All that it could do was to agitate and try to secure new members. The few girls who joined, however, had most difficult experiences. If they talked about the union to their fellow-workers, or let it be known that they were members they lost their positions.

Finally, over a hundred girls who were members of the union in one shop were “laid off” on the ostensible plea that there was no work. A few days later, the firm began to advertise for more “hands,” and the union members knew that they were hoodwinked. A small strike had already begun in another shop, due, the workers say, to the employer’s attempt to lower wages and to introduce the sectional system of subdivided labor.

The exact course of events during these weeks cannot be accurately determined. It is clear that these small groups of disaffected workers formed the nucleus of the larger strike. It is clear also that the attitude of the police and the magistrates toward the strikers did much not only to win public sympathy but to spread the spirit of discontent among the other workers in the trade.

The attitude of the police and the magistrates was described in an article in the Survey.

“Picketing as practiced by these strikers consists in sentry duty performed by union members before the doors of a shop at opening and closing hours, telling the ‘scabs’ that a strike is on – among the newly arrived foreigners there are many who do not know this – and asking them to come to union headquarters and learn about it. When peacably practiced, picketing has for years been upheld by the New York Courts as legal. The girls, however, have been arrested literally by the dozen, taken to court and fined sometimes as high as $10 each, without even a hearing.

“There had been considerable difference in the way various members of the bench have handled the cases. Detective and neighborhood thugs have threatened the pickets steadily, by profanity and even by blows which the police have somehow failed to see, while no smallest gesticulation of a picket has escaped their notice or failed to be construed as an assault. For weeks the girls have endured what they believed to be injustice at the hands of the officers of law and order, and if at times recently they have become aggressive, it is hardly to be wondered at. One member of the Women’s Trade Union League who with three other witnesses saw a scab assault a picket, applied to a magistrate for a warrant for the girl’s arrest. She reports receiving this astonishing response from the bench: ‘You have no right to picket; you have no right to be on Washington Place. Every time you go down there you will get what is coming to you and I shall not interfere. No I’ll give you no warrant.'”

The sight of the martyrdom of these few strikers was probably the one force needed to drive thousand of the shirtwaist makers to revolt against petty tyranny, long hours, irregular employment, and the injustice of the group system, and to demand that the trade union be recognized as the only means of giving the individual worker a voice in the regulation of trade conditions.

The vote for a general strike was taken at a large and heated gathering of workers in Cooper Union on November 22nd. The motion was put by a girl who had been on strike for several weeks. “I have listened to all the speakers and I have no patience for talk,” she is reported to have said. “I am one who feels and suffers for the things pictured. I move that we go on a general strike.” The next morning, it is said, that places of thirty thousand workers were vacant in the shops. The demands of the strikers were these.

(1) A fifty-two hour week, and not more than two hours overtime on any one day.
(2) The closed shop (i.e. no non-union labor employed)
(3) Notice of slack work in advance, if possible, or at least promptly on arrival in the morning.
(4) In slack season to keep all hands on part time rather than a few operators on full time, so far as possible.
(5) All wages to be paid by the firm (i.e., the abolition of the sub-contractor system.)
(6) A wage scale to be adjusted individually for each shop but the terms to be determined definitely in advance for all forms of work.

A number of the smaller shops gave in without delay and signed agreements with the union. But the real struggle was to be prolonged many weeks. It was the wealthy firms and the more powerful who organized in an Association of Waist and Dress Manufacturers, to fight the union by steadily refusing to recognize its existence. Indeed they declared themselves ready to grant all the demands of the strikers except the one point which the workers regarded as vital, the closed shop, and there were many readers of the daily papers who gravely shook their heads at this new evidence of the perversity of trade unions in refusing even the free gift of good conditions, and insisting on what the public considers a minor question, the recognition of the union. But the strikers argued that so free a gift could be withdrawn as freely as it had been offered, if the workers were not protected by the machinery of collective action.

It should be clearly understood that the closed shop, that is, the agreement to employ none but union members, is not identical with recognition of the union, that is, that agreement to regulate shop conditions by conference with the workers, collectively through the trade union, rather than individually. It is conceivable that a trade union should agree to an open shop. In many trades, however, the workers claim that the open shop means death to the union. They argue that the closed shop, far from curtailing individual freedom is the only means of assuring it under present industrial conditions. They point out such illustrations as the sectional or group system in the shirtwaist trade. The worker is a part of the group as inevitably as the cuff which she is making is part of the waist. If the group works overtime, she must work overtime. If the group loses four months work in the year she must accept the condition if she would be employed the other eight months. As an individual her choice is limited to working or not working, and even this freedom of choice depends not on inclination but on the necessity for earning a living.

What the union asks is that this group which is already a group by the very nature of the trade, be allowed to express the will of the majority in regard to trade conditions. They rebel against a system which permits an employer to treat the labor problem as a matter for individual bargaining, while insisting that in the doing of the work, the worker is not an individual but a part of a group.

Furthermore, the vital question in any trade is the regulation of wages. Frequent changes of style in the shirtwaist trade make necessary as frequent a readjustment of the wage scale. Therefore the union did not attempt to adopt any uniform scale of prices to be accepted by all manufacturers, but left the regulation of the wage scale to be adjusted by each employer in conference with the workers in his own shop. The refusal of the employers to deal collectively with the workers would, therefore, leave so important a question as wages to the futile method of individual bargaining.

“We will not be dictated to,” said the employers.

“The union is our only protection. They are czars,” said the workers, many of them recently arrived from Russia. And so the struggle was prolonged from November until February. The rush season comes in the spring, and for once the seasonal character of their trade probed a benefit to the workers. Before the first of March the strike was over, and the strikers’ demands had been granted in the great majority of shops in New York.

By that time approximately 350 firms had settled. Of these 19 had made agreements which the union was not formally recognized. Instead of the phrase “By and between (such and such a firm) and the Ladies’ Waist Makers’ Union,” these agreements had the words, “By and between (such and such a firm) and our striking employees who are members of the Ladies’ Waistmakers’ Union.” The agreements were signed by the firm and the representatives of the union.

In more than one hundred shops there had been no strike. These continued to be non-union shops, but as the busy season approached several of them signed several agreements in order to have the help of the union officers in securing workers.

There were a number of questions which could not be settled in these first trade contracts. One of them was the number of apprentices. Each shop must decide this question. No girl under sixteen is allowed to join the union and as only union members may be apprenticed, this rule will exclude all younger girls from union shops. Anyone who knows the speed of the electric or steam power machines,- long lines of them whose speed cannot be regulated by the individual worker,- and who realizes the nervous strain of operating them must rejoice in the exclusion of girls under sixteen.

The curtailment of the workers’ freedom by the group system or the subcontract system was strikingly illustrated by the union’s failure to abolish it. Workers trained by this method knew only one process, and this limited knowledge chained them to their group. Sub-contractors, anxious to continue to profit by the system, utilized this condition to prolong the group method of work. All that the union could do was to refuse to allow any new sub-contractors in union shops. When one leaves, the union arranges to have the sub-workers paid directly by the firm thus gradually tending to eliminate the evils of the middleman’s power.

The 52-hours week prevails in all union shops. A higher rate of wages, “time and a half” must be paid for overtime work. In slack seasons the work must be divided as far as practicable among all the employees. If the union should be unable to furnish workers to an employer, he may engage a non-union girl, but she must then join the union.

The workers in each shop are to meet and elect a chairman or chairlady who will be the mouthpiece of the workers in conference with the employer. If there is any difficulty between a worker and her employer, the shop meeting will discuss it and the shop chairlady will attempt to adjust it. If she fails, she will call in a union delegate. If the delegate fail it will be referred to a meeting of the union. If the difficulty still continues it will be referred to the international executive committee, and no strike will be authorized until this whole program has been carried out and the executive committee has reached a decision in favor of a strike. As it is the executive committee which holds the funds for strike benefits, peace in the trade seems to be well safe-guarded.

There are very few unions whose locals in any locality number as many as twenty or thirty thousand. The shirtwaist makers of New York were obliged to model their form of organization after that of the Western Federation of Miners. There are seven districts, in each of which there are two divisions, A and B. Each division has its organizer and holds a meeting once in two weeks. Each division will be entitled to send two delegates to the joint board which will control all the districts.

The union is free to all who wish to join. Its dues are small, and it makes no requirements as to efficiency.

The Meaning of the Strike

What is the significance of this industrial battle and the trade conditions which produced it? There have been many other strikes in this country. Nor is this the first in which women have taken a prominent part. But this has challenged public attention to a remarkable degree. In the answer to the question, What is the public going to do about it? must be found its real meaning for the community.

Whatever may have been the events leading directly to the concerted action of thousands who had never before acted together, it is evident that the fundamental cause was a widespread spirit of revolt against injustice. “Starve quick, or we’ll starve slow,” was the battle-cry of the strikers. But their program showed that it was more than a revolt against injustice. It was a concerted and definite demand, for an economic standard to be measured in terms of hours of labor, control of the wage-scale, regularity of employment, methods of training apprentices, and systems of organizing the workroom. To establish such a standard they were willing to be without work for weeks in the dead of winter, to “starve quick,” if necessary, that their fellow-workers might not “starve slow.”

That several thousand girls should make such a demand for an economic standard is a fact worth thinking about. There are many who still believe that the work of women for wages is a surprising and abnormal condition, that women’s invasion of industry is recent and that their economic position is uncertain and ill-defined. Yet here are the shirthwaist makers, passing over all these opinions, taking for granted that women are economic factors, and demanding the right to organize and to speak collectively as workers, to the end that the conditions of their work may be safeguarded to assure them an adequate standard of life. That a woman should use a needle to make a waist is not a new or surprising or abnormal fact. But that one hundred or more women in one factory should use needles sent in long lines of electric power machines is a fact whose consequences are not fully realized even by the workers themselves.

The lower their wages, the more exhausting their work, and the more precarious their standard of living, the less able will they be to think about the conditions which surround them, or to make any effort to better them. Therefore it is not surprising that so long and so vigorous a strife was carried on by women along whose industrial position is on the whole better than that of thousands of workers in other trades. If we assume, as we may from the facts which we know, that shirtwaist makers are not worse off than other makers of women’s clothing, we may guage their relative position by comparing census statistics regarding women at work on women’s clothing with those concerning other trades. In New York 31.2% of the women in the clothing trades earned less than six dollars in a week in the busy season, while one in every five earned ten dollars or more. In all trades grouped together 47.1% earned less than six dollars in a week in the busy season, while only one in every 8 earned ten dollars or more. The facts should sober us. If the shirtwaist makers found their condition so serious, what of the thousands earning less, without the strength to demand better things?

Has the community no responsibility for the establishment and the safeguarding of industrial standards? Does not self-protection demand that the state prevent the evils of industrial warfare, by preventing the injustice which provokes the workers to strife? Above all, does not the welfare of the state demand the protection of those workers who are too weak to revolt against injustice?

These are the vital questions, growing out of the shirtwaist strike. The strikers’ demands concern the most vital problems of the employment of women in trades, regulation of the hours of work, education of the workers and its relation to specialization and subdivision of labor, regularity of employment, and the control of the wage-scale to assure a living wage. The growing realization that the community is concerned with these conditions and responsible for bettering them is expressed in the laws of 28 states which restrict the hours of labor of women and regulate more or less the physical conditions in the workroom; in court decisions like that of the Supreme Court of the United States in the Oregon case upholding the constitutionality of such laws; and in the first tentative provisions in 11 states for the establishment of public industrial education. But even a brief sketch of trade conditions, such as the shirtwaist strike brought to light, indicates how feeble and ineffective is the present community action.



Source: Mary Van Kleeck, “The Shirtwaist Strike and Its Significance,” unpublished lecture, 1910, Mary Van Kleeck Papers, Box 29, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Mass.