On June 6th, 1911, The International Ladies Garment Workers Union began a planned strike in Cleveland, Ohio that lasted four gruelling months and was marked by numerous accounts of violence. Four thousand female workers took to the streets to picket for fair treatment, improved working conditions and higher pay in their factories in Cleveland’s garment district. The strike was preceded by a similar 20,000-strong uprising a year earlier in NYC and would eventually lead to further strikes in Philadelphia. Writer John Lasker tells the story of the first major strike in Cleveland’s garment industry, and the women who made it happen.
Cleveland is sweltering during one of the hottest Junes on record. It’s 1911, and city streets are baking, but something far more serious is about to ignite. Thousands of hard-working cloak makers in the city’s booming garment industry are fed up with their sweatshop life and are preparing to strike. At approximately 10 a.m. on June 7th, an estimated 6,000 cloak makers and sewers rise from their sewing machines and file out into the summer glare where the temperature pushes towards 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Also abandoning their livelihood are dress makers, shirt makers, suit makers, seamstresses and tailors.
“It was the first major strike in Cleveland’s garment industry,” says Sean Martin, associate curator for Jewish History at the Western Reserve Historical Society. “It’s not iron or steel, and we’re not talking about oil refineries, but as far as light industries, I think we can say it was Cleveland’s most important light industry.”
Martin, who’s been researching Cleveland’s garment industry history for several years now, says this project, this topic, “gets the most questions and the most interest” from people. “Because I think so many people had relatives involved,” he says. “They know these places, they know these clothing labels. These companies made clothes the middle class could afford.” In the early 20th century, violent labor strikes dominated the front page of the nation’s (numerous) newspapers. The strikes are fueled by tough men who work tirelessly for low wages.
But the Cleveland strike, which lasted five months, had a different look — nearly a third of the 6,000 strikers were women of Jewish and Italian descent, including a smaller number of Bohemians. More remarkable was their ages. Many were young, as in teenagers and early 20-somethings. And if these “girl strikers” had the toughness and the willingness to hold out until demands were met, it would be a significant victory for both labor and the working-class woman.
No doubt the young working women of Cleveland were determined, inspired and volatile. They were some of the lowest paid workers in Cleveland, and earlier that year, 123 female garment workers in New York perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire where safety standards meant locking down stairwells to prevent theft. In a twist of time, that summer mirrors today’s class struggles. The concentration of wealth was unbalanced — factory owners were some of the richest families in Cleveland compared to the thousands chained to their sewing machines living a meager life.
The summer of 1911 would also be a definitive period in Cleveland’s history. The sweaty and violent summer ahead would help seed the beginnings of a middle-class community that would rival New York during the middle of the century. Unfortunately, as we now know all too well, this Golden Age wouldn’t last.
Cleveland in 1911 is literally a world leader in manufacturing ladies’ wear, second only to New York City, and more prosperous than Berlin. According to The Plain Dealer at the time, “Cleveland supplies every nook and corner in the United States with women’s apparel.” The local garment industry had its roots in the Flats, and at the turn of the 20th century grew to become concentrated in what is now the Warehouse District, an area bounded by Lakeside and Superior Avenues, and W. 6th and W. 9th streets, according to the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History.
Dozens of manufacturers, their owners mostly German and Eastern European Jews, were based here at the time, such as the upscale Printz-Biederman Company at 1213 W. 6th Street, and the H. Black Co., which had recently moved from its location in the Warehouse District to a “state-of-the-art” facility on Superior Avenue in what is now the Tower Press Building.
Martin of the Western Reserve Historical Society says the larger of these local manufacturers such as Printz-Biederman were “kind of like company towns, because the people (the workers) were really tied to these places. Their bosses coordinated regular athletic events and large social gatherings involving their workers,” he says. “The factories back then had a close-knit culture, far greater than in today’s workplaces,” he adds.
“[Nevertheless] the workers did want more money and better conditions, and had to fight for them,” he says. “But many of these companies and their policies were very paternalistic. The company was saying, ‘This is what is good for you.’”
Before the strike, owners flaunted the fact that production had risen each of the last ten years. The city’s thirty-five factories employed roughly 20,000 workers, many sewing six days a week, twelve hours a day in conditions widely regarded as sweatshops. Worse were the starvation wages made possible by the fierce competition for sewing jobs as immigrants flooded the cores of American cities. Work was bad enough, but 60% of the garment workers were sole breadwinners, and another 50,000 Clevelanders either supplied or serviced the local garment industry. The only safety net was charity.
On June 6th, the day before the walkout, the city awoke to the Plain Dealer headline: “Big Strike Looms in Garment Trade.” Later that night the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and its local chapter held a rally at Grays Armory downtown. President of the local, Isadore Fiet, told the “sisters” and “brothers” that, when handed their red strike card tomorrow morning, they should march directly to Utopian Hall at East 31st and Woodland Avenue, an area that was at the time the heart of the east side’s immigrant and worker enclave.
The following day at a packed Utopian Hall, the ILGWU gave instructions for striker benefits, picket activities, and future meeting sites. They also restated their demands, which had been sent via post to the factory owners earlier in the week:
A fifty-hour work week, mornings only for Saturdays, double pay for overtime, observance of legal holidays, and the elimination of charges for sewing machines, electricity and thread.
But their greatest demand was for “outside representation”, and it wasn’t because labor leaders were urging them to do so. For the most part, garment workers were passionate about forming a union or joining one of the few that existed, and for the bosses to officially recognize their right to organize.
Factory owners promptly aligned themselves under the local Cloak Manufacturers Association. And by all accounts they despised any form of third-party arbitration or collective bargaining for their workers, and regarded unions as the enemy. When newspaper reporters tried to elicit a response regarding the union demands, the owners turned their backs, saying any on-the-record response would constitute implicit union recognition. Closed shop, period.
The onset of the strike was peaceful. Both the Cloak Makers Association and the ILGWU called for calm, as did rabbis and priests. But the strike was far from nonviolent. On day three, as strikers picketed through city streets, owners began their counterattack. The Cloak Manufacturers Association ran a full-page ad in several papers, including the Plain Dealer and the Cleveland Press (the left-leaning daily sympathetic to the strikers, which ceased publication in 1982).
The ad stated that the strike was unwarranted because working conditions were not as bad as the strikers portrayed. The owners (perhaps paranoid) also pointed a finger at their main rival — New York City. That city’s garment bosses were secretly behind the strike because they coveted Cleveland’s business and claimed that they knew a strike could destroy it. According to the 1984 book, A Needle, A Bobbin, A Strike, it was the ad that sparked the first acts of violence. “Two separate incidents involving strikers and police took place, with resulting injuries and arrests.”
Newspapers quickly took sides. The Cleveland Press calling the early days “orderly,” and that a victory for the strikers looked promising. In contrast, the Plain Dealer vowed the strikers were entirely responsible for maintaining labor peace. Ironically, labor leaders suspected the factory owners were provoking the violence behind the scenes, knowing this public relations trap would win them support from Cleveland’s upper classes.
By June 14th women had assumed a bigger role in the strike. A parade was called for and 6,000 strikers and supporters took to the streets. “There were women, gray-haired and bent with age and toil, marching beside girls garbed in white, who wore bright ribbons and gay flowers,” stated the Women’s Trade Union League at the time.
In the days that followed, more private security guards and the scabs they were protecting began showing up at factories. Tempers flared and the girl strikers were itching for a brawl. Never before and likely never again will Cleveland witness packs of young Jewish and Italian girls roving the streets for strikebreakers and scabs. “Young women and girls not yet out of short dresses,” wrote the Plain Dealer, “girls ages 19 to 21, attacked automobiles that were driving up at quitting time to pick up strikebreakers.”
Young men and women began to be arrested for acts like throwing things at automobiles carrying strikebreakers and tripping workers entering plants. Testifying to the girl strikers’ determination is a show of resilience: Becky Fisher, a 17-year-old sweatshop worker, is arrested thirty-nine times, according to The Jewish Daily Forward, before the strike is even half over. “She has been beaten by hired goons, cursed by police and threatened by judges,” stated the national daily, still a vibrant paper to this day. “For a week of backbreaking work, she receives a salary of $6 from the blood-sucking shop owners.”
Another female riot erupted at Orange Ave. and E. 27th St., but it wasn’t over low wages — it was over frozen water. Supplies of ice were running short at the ice station that was located there, and the incident made the front pages the following day. What didn’t make the papers — at least not until two years after the fact — was the secret meeting held between the Cloak Manufacturers Association and the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce. There they agreed “the issue of violence could become a valuable tactic in employers’ union opposition,” according to A Needle, A Bobbin, A Strike.
The next day, the Chamber of Commerce publicly called for order. At the same time a spy for the Cloaks Manufacturers Association was quickly infiltrating the ranks of the strikers. The “agent provocateur” was Morris Lubin and his true loyalty wasn’t uncovered until two years later when he was tried and convicted in a local court. Covering his trial was the ILGWU’s newspaper, The Ladies Garment Worker: “He convinced the girls and young women that their tactics ‘were too ladylike.’”
According to the New York Globe, Lubin the mole was far more sinister than a secret agent who incited young women. “Lubin led secret raids against the homes of strikebreakers…He plotted unsuccessfully to blow up the hotel occupied by scabs…Lubin and three other strikers beat up a strikebreaker who later died of the effects.”
On the other hand, one of the girl strikers’ strategies was uniquely moral and seemingly ingenious — they would reach across class lines for support and cooperation hoping the educated and affluent women of Cleveland would help convince the employers to pay their armies of female sewers a living wage and treat them with dignity.
The strategy had been successful for girl strikers in New York and Chicago. Thus union leaders reached out to the local Women Suffrage League, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the YWCA, The Cleveland Council of Jewish Women and other local pro-women groups.
But once again the girl strikers were met with a cold shoulder. Cooperation across class lines didn’t happen. Incredibly, even the Women’s Suffrage League explicitly said they supported every individual woman, but not the collective, and remained “neutral” because some of its membership was anti-union. In the end, at least for Cleveland, class ruled over gender.
As the strike dragged into the fall, the owners stood their ground. The unions cut the maximum weekly benefit by two dollars down to $6. And worse, more and more strikers were leaving the picket lines for their sewing machine, while a growing number of wives were urging their garment worker husbands back to work.
The violence had also taken its toll. A worker who was suspected of going back to work was beaten and killed by strikers. Worse, an 11-year-old girl, the daughter of a company hired security guard, was shot and killed by an apparent stray bullet.
In mid-October, the socialist paper The Cleveland Citizen suddenly announced the strike had been called off because the unions ran out of strike pay. But the five months on the hot and mean streets wasn’t a total loss. The girl strikers “had demonstrated a willingness and ability to endure a labor struggle” and “were used to arouse the case for organized labor generally [and] the heroism of the women was celebrated as legion.”
Josephine Casey, a young and passionate organizer for the ILGWU sent to Cleveland during the strike, later wrote rather bombastically about the girl strikers of Cleveland in the union’s The Ladies Garment Worker. And when reflecting on the sweltering summer of 1911, who is to say whether Casey’s words should be written any other way:
“Oh you girls of Cleveland! You who a short time ago wept instead of protesting when you were unjustly treated, will in the future fight instead of weeping. The Bosses did not think you could fight. The men who worked alongside of you did not count on you. The only ones who knew you would make good were the women throughout the country, who had been on the fighting line some time themselves!”
Girl Strikers originally appeared in Belt Mag