March 10, 2011- Sometimes things fall apart and sometime they flow together.
As the Wisconsin State Senate rammed through their union-busting bill Wednesday night, people in the capitol chanted “General strike!” And I heard an echo. Not of 1934, the last time there was a general strike in the United States, but earlier.
It was 1909, in the crowded Great Hall at New York’s Cooper Union; a big union boss was talking about talks and a 16-year-old girl shouted out from the back: “WALK OUT.”
More than 30,000 shirtwaist factory workers walked off their jobs after that. This week’s International Women’s Day celebrates the anniversary of that strike, by mostly young, immigrant women like 16-year-old Clara Lemlich. Seven hundred women were arrested, many more beaten and spat on for being “on strike against God.”
They struck for eleven weeks. It was the first successful uprising of women workers in this country—but their success didn’t go far enough.
Had, it, the 1911 Triangle Factory fire that killed 146 of these workers two years later might never have happened. A documentary about the fire is available now from PBS’s website, another one’s coming from HBO. At the March 25 centennial commemoration, the names of all the dead will be read.