Lemlich, labor leader


As we come marching, marching in the beauty of the day,

A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,

Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,

For the people hear us singing: “Bread and roses! Bread and roses!”

As we come marching, marching, we battle too for men,

For they are women’s children, and we mother them again.

Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;

Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!

As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead

Go crying through our singing their ancient cry for bread.

Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.

Yes, it is bread we fight for — but we fight for roses, too!

As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days.

The rising of the women means the rising of the race.

No more the drudge and idler — ten that toil where one reposes,

But a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and roses! Bread and roses!

  • By James Oppenheim, inspired by a speech by Rose Schneiderman

Every day in the United States we wake up and send our children to school. We leave for jobs with safe working conditions, reasonable hours, often benefits. If our teenagers hold jobs, their hours during the school year are limited, and the working conditions are restricted. Women attend school, go to college, join the workforce. Things weren’t always this way, and we can, in large part, thank the working women of the early 20th century for igniting decades of improvement in child labor and women’s rights.


Being Jewish in Eastern Europe in the late 1800s meant a life surrounded by uncertainty and upheaval. Revolutionary ideas in Russia were on the rise as a rising educated middle class was increasingly disenchanted with government corruption, bribery, food shortages and censorship. Citizens began embracing ideas from western Europe, threatening the rising movement of nationalism from the government. When Czar Alexander II was assassinated by a bomb thrown from the protesting “People’s Will” group, his son, Alexander III, immediately scapegoated the Jews. He appointed Nikolai Ignatyev, an extreme conservative, to lead the Ministry of the Interior. In response to the growing unrest and in retaliation for the assassination, the government directed pogroms, targeting the Jews to distract other citizens from the real problems.

At the same time, in small towns and villages, Jewish artisans were losing opportunities to industrialization in the bigger cities. Young people began leaving home to find work in factories in larger cities like Kiev, making clothing, shoes, and canned food. In these more cosmopolitan, Westernized environments, they were exposed to ideas of democracy, Socialism, protest and revolution. The concepts spread through their hometowns, and with the threat of violent pogroms looming, many families in the shtetls decided that emigrating might be less risky than staying home.

In this time, March 28, 1886, Clara Lemlich was born in the Gorodok shtetl in Ukraine, not far from Kishinev.

While their formal education was limited, women in the shtetls were entrepreneurial, primary breadwinners, and role models for their daughters. Clara’s mother ran a small grocery store. Other women in the community sewed, baked, and treated the sick. Like most of the women, Clara was taught Yiddish but not sent to formal school.

Because Gorodok’s only school excluded Jews, she continued her studies secretly, defying her parents (who forbade any Russian texts in their home) by reading Tolstoy and Turgenev. By her teen  years, Clara took on odd jobs to fund her reading. She sewed buttonholes on shirts for the local tailors, and wrote letters for illiterate neighbors to send to their families abroad. One day her father found her books and burned the whole collection, but Clara was undaunted. She started over, storing them in the attic.

In 1903, the Russian government launched a violent anti-Semitic movement in response to a rumor that a Christian had been murdered by a group of Jews. Armed with knives and machetes, rioters killed dozens and injured hundreds more. Following this pogrom, another two years later, and faced with newspaper headlines declaring “Death to the Jews!” and “Crusade Against the Hated Race!” many Jews began to flee to the U.S.


In the 1830s in Lowell, Massachusetts, the textiles mills represented the beginning of the industrial revolution in the United States and new efficiencies in manufacturing and processing.   The women who worked there, however, endured dangerous conditions, thirteen hour days, and arbitrary wage cuts. In 1834 the Lowell Mill women reached a breaking point, and created the first union/strike, demanding reasonable hours and reinstatement of their wages, an end to discrimination against foreign workers, and overtime pay.

That first strike failed; management had the power to crush the uprising and keep the factories running at full capacity. But the women organized again in 1836, and by the 1840s they turned their focus from labor organizing to political action. Petitioning state legislatures for years eventually earned them their 10-hour days, though not much else; but they laid the groundwork for working women in the decades to come.


The most famous of the farbrente Yidishe meydlekh [fiery Jewish girls] Clara was a suffragist, communist, community organizer, and peace activist. Though she fought for equal rights her entire life, she did not support the Equal Rights Amendment, believing too many white women were focusing their efforts solely on race and gender and not enough on class.

Despite her long hours in the factories, Clara never abandoned her education. She dedicated her spare time to the New York Public Library, formed study groups with her coworkers, and took night classes.  She continued reading Russian literature and studying union theory.

Conditions at the Gotham shirtwaist factory were horrible. The women worked 11 hours a day six days a week for $3/week. Foremen followed the girls to the bathrooms so they would hurry, workers were cheated on their pay, the factory charged the girls for needles and thread, clocks were changed so lunches were cut short or workers didn’t realize their shifts were over. Girls were immediately fired for talking on the job. Humiliated and exhausted, the workers felt dehumanized, like machines. The introduction of the industrial sewing machine didn’t ease their burden; suddenly workers were expected to produce more work, twice as fast as before.

The struggles of the shop floor helped the young Jewish women to bond, and because of their shared workplace experiences and home culture, workplace organizing began organically. They had been exposed to Socialist ideas at home in Europe, and they were now living the reality.


Eventually Clara formed Waistmakers Local 25, a local chapter of ILGWU (Intl Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union), a new organization fighting for worker’s rights. She led picket lines, wrote opinion pieces, organized strikes, and was often harmed by police and hired thugs. All in all, Clara suffered six broken ribs and was arrested seventeen times.

“Ah – then I had fire in my mouth…What did I know about trade unionism? Audacity – that was all I had – audacity!”

On November 22, 1909, she helped organized a strike with 15,000 factory workers, the Uprising of the Twenty Thousand. This was the first such effort to have the support of society women as well as radical socialists and teenage workers.  During the two month strike, an estimated 40,000 workers abandoned their jobs, bring factories to a halt. Most were women, Jewish immigrants younger than 25. They achieved some major concessions: a fifty-two-hour week, at least four holidays with pay per year, no discrimination against union loyalists, tools and materials without fee, equal division of work during slack seasons, and negotiation of wages with employees.

Within weeks the news spread, and similar strikes yielded better conditions in Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland, Brooklyn, and elsewhere.

“They used to say that you couldn’t even organize women. They wouldn’t come to union meetings. They were ‘temporary’ workers. Well, we showed them!”

In 1911, everything Clara had been protesting for years culminated in the Triangle Fire. Locked doors and blocked fire escapes meant that over 140 workers, mostly young women, perished in the disaster.


In 1913 Clara married Joe Shavelson, a union activist, and eventually had three children. Irving, Martha, and Rita. She never abandoned her outspoken organizing, and recruited other wives and mothers to fight for food safety, affordable and safe housing, and public education.

Even in her eighties, at the  Jewish Home for the Aged in Los Angeles, Clara helped the orderlies form a union and led the home’s administrators to participate in the United Farm Workers grape boycott. Clara Lemlich Shavelson died on July 12, 1982.


How are the issues tackled by these early twentieth century women similar to the challenges we still face today? Certainly the early organizers made impressive progress and laid the groundwork for further improvements in the decades to come. Child labor laws now ensure that children receive an education and time to play; legislation prohibits discrimination of women, minorities, and those with disabilities; safety regulations have dramatically reduced workplace injuries and deaths.

Now in the 21st century, how far do we still have to go? Workers are now turning their focus to a platform of issues that feels new, but still mirrors the concerns of the strikers 100 years ago:  affordable housing, time for child/elder care, wage stagnation, paid leave, education, equity, healthcare/contraceptive equity, retirement security.

Read more about Clara Lemlich and the early U.S. labor movement:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s