The Roots of International Working Women’s Day

It’s exciting. At last, US women are getting in on the act. Celebrating International Working Women’s Day -- after all, it was an event in the US that helped give it its start.

It was 1909, in the crowded Great Hall at New York’s Cooper Union; a big union boss was talking about talks. Things were moving slowly when 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. The biggest worker walk out in New YOrk history up to taht point. The leaders were mostly young, immigrant women like that 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 11 weeks.  And inspired the European socialists who later resolved to mark International Working Women’s Day.

Appreciation’s nice. But it doesn’t in itself save lives. In 1911, two years later,  a fire broke out in New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory  - a fire of exactly the sort the 09 strikers had been fearing. It killed 146 workers, again women and girls, mostly immigrants, several of whom leapt from upper floor windows to escape .

All these years on, more people remember the fire, and name the the dead.

But what fewer people remember are the demands these women and girls made...not just for wage increases, but for the ability to have a say in the conditions of their workplace— workplaces that should not  kill them. Those are the rights that will be taken from American workers if the GOP Trump agenda goes ahead.

Imagine, a century ago, if the rest of New York had stood with the women of the factories. Imagine if instead of 20,000, it had been 2 million workers marching. Or if it were to be today.

Celebration’s nice. Listening is even better. And it’s never to too late to get to started.  


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