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In chevruta, read the selection below on the history of Jews in the Labor Rights era from the Jewish Women's Archive.

The American labor movement was shaped by the activism of immigrant workers, and few played as prominent a role as the young Jewish women who worked in the garment industry of the early 20th century. On November 23, 1909, between 20,000 and 40,000 girls and women working in the 600 shirtwaist (blouse) factories in New York City got up from their machines in factories and sweatshops, walked out onto the city’s streets, and went on strike. In what became known as the “Uprising of the 20,000”—still the largest strike of women workers in American history—girls and women from diverse backgrounds came together to demand their rights to better working conditions, better pay, and union membership. Risking their jobs, arrest and possible deportation, rough physical treatment on the picket line at the hands of thugs hired by their bosses to teach them a lesson, and the scorn and wrath of their families, these women, nevertheless, went out on strike.

Working conditions in sweatshops and garment factories at the turn of the 20th century were brutal in the worst cases, dangerous and demeaning in the best cases. The forty hour work week did not exist at this time; garment industry laborers regularly worked fourteen hour days, six days a week, and hours could be added on Sundays during peak work seasons. There was neither a minimum wage nor overtime pay, and girls and women were regularly paid less than men were paid for doing the same jobs. Wages were deducted for late arrival, broken machinery, going to the bathroom without permission, not completing enough work in the time allotted even when the workers were forced to produce at a break-neck pace, and for other reasons beyond the control of the worker. Despite their meager wages, workers often had to provide their own machinery and supplies (such as thread).

There were no laws to protect children in the workplace. Little ones as young as six years old could be found snipping loose threads and sewing labels into finished garments. The Department of Labor was only created in 1913, and there was no Occupational Safety and Health Administration overseeing conditions in the workplace. Lighting was poor. Sanitation was poor. The heat was unbearable in the summer, and the shops and factories were cold in the winter. Exits were locked. The noise was deafening. Sexual abuse was common but rarely reported and even more rarely punished.

These were all good reasons to go out on strike, but the reasons not to strike were equally as compelling. How would the girls and women feed themselves and help to support their families if they were not working? If the strike did not succeeed, they might be fired from their jobs, and they might earn a reputation as a troublemaker and be blacklisted or prevented from working in other shops and factories. They could be arrested, labeled "radical," and even deported! If their parents or husbands disagreed with the strike, they could risk losing their families. Yet they went out on strike not just in 1909, but repeatedly in the first and second decades of the twentieth century.

For some, the lack of respect they received from the bosses was what pushed these women to go out on strike. In some shops, they were not allowed to talk to each other while they worked. They were allowed to go to the bathroom only during formal breaks. They were searched on their way out of work each day to be sure they hadn’t stolen anything. These humiliations endured day after day wore down the workers.

The Jewish girls and women connected their oppression in the workplace to the political oppression that had inspired their families to leave Europe and come to America, believing that in America they would experience greater freedom and better conditions. Some immigrants had already encountered radical political movements in Europe and were therefore already open to ideas like unionization and Socialism when they arrived in America. Some garment workers from other ethnic groups shared this background of political oppression in their countries of origin. Jewish women also carried the collective memory of the history of Jewish oppression to which they connected their own suffering. Many of the strikers believed in the possibility of change in America, and they believed they could help bring about the betterment of their conditions through labor activism. Read more (if you'd like to).


Choose one of the topics below to dig a little deeper. For each you will find a short article followed by some discussion questions to share with your chevruta.

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