Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Julianne Kornacki

Shirtwaist Strike (1909-10)

On December 20, 1909, more than 7,000 of Philadelphia’s 12,000 shirtwaist workers walked out on their jobs, one month after the “uprising of 20,000” commenced in New York City’s shirtwaist industry. The strike lasted until February 6, 1910, when manufacturers agreed to comply with workers’ demands (though ultimately refused union recognition). Occurring in an era of increased unemployment, labor market instability, and worker militancy, the shirtwaist strike revealed tensions between Philadelphia’s Republican machine government and organized labor, as well as among elite members of the Jewish community, club women, and the young shirtwaist workers.

[caption id="attachment_16178" align="alignright" width="245"]photograph of a dark rose shirtwaist blouse, displayed on a headless mannequin Shirtwaist blouses, such as this one sewn in 1896 by an unknown American maker, became symbolic of modern, working young women of the early twentieth century. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)[/caption]

The shirtwaist blouse was a type of blouse common in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, modeled after a man’s shirt, that was the model blouse for the independent, working woman. It was fashionable, had a collar, and could be of simple or embellished design, making it versatile.

Approximately 85 percent of the shirtwaist strikers were Jewish women and girls from Russia, demonstrating the ethnic and gender segregation of Philadelphia’s labor market. Overall, 40 percent of workers in Philadelphia’s garment trades were Jewish, and young women and girls from Russia had high rates of employment. Most Jewish workers worked for Jewish employers, who often paid low wages and were generally first- or second-generation Jewish elites from Western Europe, who had settled in Philadelphia decades earlier. Members of this elite welcomed new immigrants hesitantly, devoting considerable resources to forge a pliant, assimilated working class. However, many newly arrived immigrant workers agitated for better working conditions against the call for "unity and harmony" among the community’s intellectual and business leaders.

The shirtwaist industry operated under a subcontracting system, wherein manufacturers distributed work to contractors who, in turn, hired operators to make the garments. The manufacturers were not liable for any injury or illness workers suffered on the job, and workers were often responsible for purchasing their own equipment and supplies. To alleviate these conditions, strikers demanded a ten percent increase in wages on all piece and contract work, regular and consistent payment, an end to punitive firings, a cap of fifty hours work per week, sanitary working conditions, union recognition, and a free supply of work materials (thread, for example).

In response to the strike, the city government pledged “sufficient protection” for shirtwaist manufacturers and began rounding up hundreds of picketing strikers per day. Workers and their allies were arrested for allegedly committing crimes that included intimidating, insulting, or “annoying” workers who were not on strike, assault and battery of police officers and strikebreakers, inciting to riot, disorderly conduct, and conspiracy. To maintain the strike, leadership from the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) solicited the aid of society women, who supplied the material support necessary for the workers to hold out. More than one hundred local unions also pledged solidarity, linking the strike to broader organizing efforts in the city, as well as to concurrent shirtwaist strikes in other United States and Canadian cities.

The strikers faced tremendous opposition from the city’s business community, the Republican administration of Mayor John E. Reyburn (1845-1914), the police department, mainstream press, and Jewish elites. However, with the support of clubwomen (including Helen Taft (1891-1987), the daughter of President William Howard Taft (1857-1930), labor organizations, and rank-and-file workers, the shirtwaist strikers were able to stay on the picket lines long enough to secure substantive gains—including a system for negotiating piece-work prices, reduced work hours, and the elimination of charges for materials.

More broadly, the political corruption of the Reyburn administration had alienated both reform groups and members of Republican Party. At a moment when growing numbers of elite women were organizing for universal suffrage, enough saw the plight of shirtwaist workers as a symbol of political oppression against women more broadly. While club women were most comfortable participating from a distance and on their own terms, their arrests from the picket lines populated front-page headlines.

Overall, the strike revealed tensions that had already existed in Philadelphia, as well as the growing political involvement of elite women and the entrenchment of the city’s police force. Further, the strike showcased the power of organized labor, which would be witnessed in full force during the 1910 General Strike, which involved between 60,000 and 70,000 Philadelphians striking in solidarity with streetcar workers.

Julianne Kornacki is a doctoral student in political science with an interest in the history of municipal and neighborhood politics in Philadelphia.

General Strike of 1910

On March 5, 1910, between 60,000 and 75,000 workers complied with the Central Federated Union’s call for a general strike in solidarity with the striking streetcar workers employed by Philadelphia’s Rapid Transit Company (RTC). Business and political elites feared that the strike would spread to other parts of Pennsylvania and to cities where workers had pledged their support, including Newark, San Francisco, and New York. The general strike, which lasted until March 27, grew to an estimated 140,000 people. The strike saw loss of life and property in violent standoffs between strikers, strikebreakers, and police officers, and spoke to widespread dissatisfaction with labor conditions and municipal corruption in Philadelphia.

[caption id="attachment_14472" align="alignright" width="300"]A group of strikers and sympathizers come together in public to demonstrate the solidarity of organized workers. Workers and supporters gather before a meeting on February 2, 1910, as the tensions between the Rapid Transit Company and workers increased. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The general strike was precipitated by an escalating dispute with RTC. The company had laid off 173 organized workers (who had unionized under Local 477 of the Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Employees of America) in anticipation of the February municipal elections—thus delaying a strike and helping Republicans sweep the municipal elections. RTC admitted to discriminating against Amalgamated members in favor of “loyal” workers, and, in response, 6,000 workers called a strike for January 18.

The walkout was the latest in a succession of strikes in Philadelphia’s transit industry, including strikes in 1895 and 1909. The public transportation system had been mired in corruption that implicated both private interests and the city’s Republican political machine (the director of public safety was a large stockholder in RTC). Incorporated in 1902 as a long-term leaseholder of nearly all of Philadelphia’s railway lines, the company had renegotiated its contract with the city in 1907. RTC agreed to pay a fixed fee in return for relief from its obligation to repair roads and clear snow, while also securing a monopoly on all future railway projects through 1957. As a result, service worsened and the city took on a tremendous fiscal burden. 

Widespread Dissatisfaction

By the time of the 1910 strike, press reports had documented widespread public dissatisfaction with RTC, which had discontinued transfers and discounted strip tickets and initiated fare hikes, among other service issues.

[caption id="attachment_14525" align="alignright" width="246"]John E. Reyburn, Mayor of Philadelphia during the General Strike. Pennsylvania State Senate Historical Biographies John E. Reyburn, mayor of Philadelphia during the general strike. (Pennsylvania State Senate Historical Biographies)[/caption]

Strike organizers saw the company’s disrepute as key to the strike's chances for success: Leaders tied RTC and the administration of Mayor John E. Reyburn (1845-1914) to lawlessness, violence, and anarchy, in opposition to justice-seeking workers and residents of Philadelphia.Organizers saw the strike as a local stage for broader conflicts between organized labor and capitalist interests. In order to appeal to nonunionized workers and the general public, leaders discouraged radical “outsiders” from infiltrating the strike and any violence other than destruction of RTC property.

The general strike was a tactical escalation in response to RTC’s unwillingness to arbitrate. The key disagreement between RTC and Local 477 was the exclusive right of the union to organize RTC workers, which would enable membership growth and bargaining power, as had been achieved by transit workers in San Francisco, Detroit, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh. RTC knew this, and was committed to maintaining an open shop to prevent a wage increase. RTC would not surrender on what it considered "fundamental and inalienable rights" as a corporation, namely: to not be subjected to any outside organization and to be able to fire employees at will.

Anticipating a strike, in January RTC hired and trained nearly 1,000 on-call workers to be used as strikebreakers. During the strike, RTC officers brought in additional workers from Boston, New York, Baltimore, Washington, Norfolk, Richmond, Reading, Wilmington, Cleveland, St. Louis, and smaller towns. RTC built dormitories at its nineteen depots to house these new workers, with a commissary who directed hundreds of cooks and other staff. Further, the Philadelphia police acted as on-call private security for RTC, and emergency police stations were constructed at key RTC depots. At the height of the strike, RTC fed and housed over 7,000 strikebreakers and police officers.

Union Organizers Arrested

During the strike, Philadelphia police arrested high-ranking union organizers and sympathy strikers—fifty percent ofwhom were under the age of 18— being authorized to “storm” strikers with guns and batons. Newspapers reported violence and sabotage to render streetcars inoperable, as well as retaliation by strikebreakers who shot into crowds and accelerated along their routes, causing several bystander fatalities. Newspapers reported that at least two young children lost life and limb from the streetcars, and that as many as ten strikers and bystanders were killed by gunfire from strikebreakers and police.

[caption id="attachment_14471" align="alignright" width="300"]A group of strikers throw stones at a passing trolley car. During the strike, the widespread dissatisfaction with the Rapid Transit Company over labor conditions took violent turns, as in this February 20, 1910, photo in which strikers throw stones at a passing trolley.(Library of Congress)[/caption]

Though the general strike ended on March 27, the streetcar workers remained on strike until April 19. After three months, RTC finally agreed to a wage increase, the rehiring of strikers  within three months (though stripped of seniority), and mediation of the initial 173 union-targeted firings. Overall, the nine-week strike cost RTC $2,395,000 and the city millions more, and 3,400 workers returned to work having won some of their demands.

The strike had organized workers across industries in opposition to the public-private alliance between the police, the Reyburn administration, and RTC. It convinced RTC and the city that "rioting cannot be effectively suppressed except by radical measures"—namely, police officers' liberal use of revolvers and clubs—and compelled the city and elite reformers to push for a strengthened police force and structured intervention to prevent juvenile delinquency. Though the strike did not achieve its central demand—exclusive union recognition— it paralyzed the city, garnered tremendous solidarity, and demonstrated the capacity of labor to organize across industrial lines.

Julianne Kornacki is a doctoral student in political science with an interest in the history of municipal and neighborhood politics in Philadelphia.

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