Chicago Garment Workers Strike

Nationally, between 1880 and 1920, the needle trades were the third most strike-prone industry after mining and the building trades.

By the end of the first decade of the 20th century, the garment industry was Chicago's third largest employer and the single largest employer of women. Like the Uprising of the 20,000 and subsequent strikes in Cleveland and Philadelphia, the Chicago garment workers' strike of 1910 and 1911, sometimes called the Hart, Schaffner, and Marx strike after the firm where it started, was a massive strike started and led by women in which diverse workers in the garment industry showed their ability to organize across ethnic lines in an industry notorious for low wages and bad conditions. The Chicago strike marked the start of what became the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America and began the career of Sidney Hillman as a labor leader.

On September 22, 1910, sixteen women struck the major Chicago garment company Hart, Schaffner, and Marx (HSM). Although wages, hours, and conditions were all bad, the final straw for the women was the imposition of a bonus system, which allowed supervisors to play favorites with some workers, as well as a cut in the piece rate of 1/4 cent. By the end of the week, the original sixteen were joined by 2,000 other women. When the United Garment Workers union (UGW) officially sanctioned the strike, 41,000 workers walked off the job. Despite this increase in strikers, many viewed the UGW's help as too little, too late, because it refused to call a general strike, but only called workers off the job at companies without contracts, and as a result, HSM was able to ship work to non-union subcontractors. As the fall progressed, the strike increasingly looked like a lost cause. In early November, the Chicago Federation of Labor and the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) urged the strikers to settle, and the UGW withdrew support in December. Workers under Sidney Hillman's leadership ratified a contract with HSM that went into effect on January 14th. Other workers, the most radical of the strikers, held out until February, when the general strike was called off. As many workers as could returned to their shops, but many were refused re-employment.

Like earlier needle trades strikes in New York, Cleveland, and Philadelphia, and the subsequent one in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the Chicago strike was notable for being cross-ethnic. Workers and organizers spoke Yiddish, Czech, Polish, Italian, Lithuanian, and English. The Chicago strike, also like the others, was also notable for being led by women; indeed, the men who controlled the UGW refused to take seriously the teenage girls who organized the strike at the beginning. But despite their youth, the women workers were veteran workers and often experienced WTUL organizers.

Socialists helped lead the strike in the absence of UGW support and capitalized on the youth and seeming innocence of the women strikers. Women like Nellie M. Zeh and Mary O'Reilly were local socialists who helped organize support for the strikers on neighborhood lines. They used the image of the pretty, cheerful, militant girl to win support for the strike. Zeh described one "girl striker" in the Chicago Daily Socialist: "Sweet and pretty is that laughing face, but strength of character is also shown in that it was she who took the lead in the walk-out of an entire shop."

Chicago was a center of the progressive movement, and progressives, as well as socialists, helped support the strikers. The progressive WTUL, whose supporters were often the blood relations or wives of the very capitalists the radical strikers fought, provided important support for the strike even while the UGW refused to lead. The situation was often rife with irony: Grace Abbott was once driven by Sears owner Julius Rosenwald's chauffeur to a meeting to plan a picket of a Sears factory. Sidney Hillman who emerged as the leader of the union after the strike, succeeded because he managed to bridge the distance between the WTUL Progressives and the radical rank-and-file strikers, including his future wife, Bessie Abramowitz, whom he met during the 1919 Chicago strike.

At the end of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth, thousands of immigrants sailed to the United States from Eastern Europe, driven by poor economic conditions and cultural persecution. When they arrived, immigrants took the only available, and lowest paying, jobs. The Industrial Revolution continued and fueled a demand for ready-made clothing. Out of this, the manufactured clothing industry developed.

In the urban ghettos, where the clothing industry was mostly located, working conditions were terrible. Sweatshops were unsanitary, pay was low, and the hours were long. There was continuous conflict between the workers and owners of the factories. Immigrant workers were learning that they could only get what they wanted from their employers if they stuck together.

Very few people had as much impact on the life of factory workers in the United States as Hannah Shapiro. It took nerve to stand against an entire industry. On September 22, 1910, Hannah Shapiro, age eighteen, walked out of the Hart Schaffner and Marx clothing shop where she was employed as a pocket sewer. Sixteen other girls followed her. They were tired of wage reductions, long hours and poor working conditions. The girls didn't know that they were about to start the largest and most successful strike of the decade and possibly the century. This strike affected much of the industrial United States and all of the city of Chicago.

In Chicago last May the slightest disturbance might end in a serious riot. Often a union teamster stopped his wagon at a cross street, a non-union caravan halted a moment, almost instantaneously other wagons hemmed it in, cars were stalled, there was cursing and cutting of traces and exchange of blows and shots. Perhaps a shower of inkstands and rulers and bottles came from the windows of the tall office buildings. The police rang in a riot call, and with their reinforcements beat back the jeering crowd, dragged away the blockading trucks by sheer force, and the train of strike-breaking wagons moved on with a dozen broken heads among its drivers.
This was in the business heart of the city. Farther out men used more primitive methods of combat. They knocked each other down with clubs and blackjacks, and then kicked in heads and ribs, and gouged out eyes, and slashed and stabbed with knives.
Such scenes hurt the reputation of a city, but Chicago herself is guiltless here. No city in America to-day is more essentially democratic in spirit and none has higher ideals of municipal life. When such a city is suddenly divided against itself and made the battleground of two armies fighting to the death the condition requires an explanation and a remedy.
Chicago was in that position last spring. The Employers' Association and the Federation of Labor were the combatants, and the helpless citizens stood between the battle lines. The question at issue was one far deeper than any strike: Shall any body of citizens be permitted to jeopardize the peace, comfort, prosperity and personal safety of their fellows in the settlement of a private quarrel? Or, as one man puts it, "Who is Chicago for, anyway—all of us or just a few ? "

This condition arose from two distinct strikes which occurred in the autumn of 1904. On November 19th some six thousand employees, members of the United Garment Workers of America, struck in the twenty-seven wholesale houses which were then members of the National Wholesale Tailors' Association. Justice seems to incline to the side of the employees. For three years now the larger employers of Chicago, through the Employers' Association, have been fighting for the principle of the open shop, and in a majority of industries that principle prevails to-day. It did not prevail in the tailoring industries when this strike occurred last fall. The National Tailors' Association had agreed with its employees, as members of District Council No. 6, U.G W. of A., by a contract dated June 26, 1903, to employ in their shops only members of the union and to send out work only to union contractors. This is the closed-shop principle in its strictest form.