“The worker must have bread, but she must have roses too.” — Rose Schneiderman

A RECENT PLAY ABOUT JEWS, THE LABOR MOVEMENT AND THE TRIANGLE SHIRTWAIST FACTORY FIRE OF 1911 The play was performed March 17-19, 2000 at the Los Angeles Theater Center. Three sold-out performances celebrated the proud tradition of Jews in the labor movement and helped link our present to our past.

“Bread & Roses” explores the involvement of Jews in the U.S. labor movement, highlighting the garment industry and the disastrous 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York City. The fire killed 146 women and led to important labor reforms. The play also examines contemporary Jewish attitudes towards the labor movement.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

One hundred and forty six women died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, 1911. 500 women, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants, some as young as ten years old, were working in the sweatshop that Saturday. The doors leading from the shop areas had been locked, presumably to keep the women at their sewing machines. The owners of the company were charged with manslaughter, but acquitted.

A commission gathered testimony, and New York City established the Bureau of Fire Investigation which gave the fire department additional powers to improve factory safety. The fire changed the regulation by government of business, prompting a host of new laws to protect workers — first in New York, then in other states, and at the federal level.

The event also crystallized support for efforts, particularly by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), to organize garment workers. It remains one of the most vivid symbols for the American labor movement of the need for government to ensure a safe workplace.

Even before the fire, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, a maker of women’s clothing, had been a target of union organizers. The first major strike by working women took place among the shirtwaist makers of New York and Philadelphia on November 22, 1909, and continued until February 15, 1910.

Called the Uprising of the 20,000, the strike began when women and girls in their teens left their cramped and filthy work rooms, and marched to Union Square to protest their poor working conditions at a meeting called by the ILGWU. Although the intent of the meeting was not to call a strike, remarks made by teenager Clara Lemlich stirred up members of the group and motivated them to walk out.

She interrupted the speeches of Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), and Margaret Dreier Robins of the New York Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) — an organization that joined women factory workers with women from the upper and middle classes — to yell: “I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in general terms. What we are here for is to decide whether or not we shall strike. I offer a resolution that a general strike be declared now!” The following day, the women walked out.

Clara Lemlich Shavelson (1886-1982) is a major character in Sholem’s “Bread & Roses” as is Rose Schneiderman (1882-1972), a Polish immigrant who helped organize the first female local of the Jewish Socialist United Cloth Hat and Cap Makers Union. Schneiderman played a crucial role in the garment workers’ strike of 1909-10. She was an active suffragette and president of Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) from 1926 to ’49.

Resources: Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, Women and Labor Unions

  • A comprehensive site maintained by the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives at Cornell University in cooperation with the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE!). The site contains source material, pictures, and survivor interviews and additional links.
  • Another comprehensive site with first-hand accounts and testimony of witnesses at the commission that investigated the tragedy.
  • A United Press account of the fire…
  • A good history of the union struggles leading up to the fire, and the aftermath
  • “The Spirit of the Strikers” — A contemporary account of the strike of 1910
  • “The I’m Not Rappaport,” written and directed by Herb Gardner film begins with a scene from the 1909 ILGWU meeting addressed by the fiery Clara Lemlich (Elina Löwensohn)
  • The 1912 Lawrence Strike: How Did Immigrant Workers Struggle to Achieve an American Standard of Living? — including links to speeches, posters and pictures of Rose Schneiderman
  • A history of women in the workplace and labor unions
  • Annotated Bibliography and Guide to Archival Resources on the History of Jewish Women in America

Resources: Sweatshops and Organizing

  • “Hidden Labor; Uncovering L.A.’s Garment Industry” — The Common Threads Artist Group traces the history of the the L.A. garment industry
  • “Between A Rock and a Hard Place.” The Smithsonian Institute’s history of American sweatshop
  • California Students Against Sweatshops
  • Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees
  • Los Angeles Jewish Commission on Sweatshops issues report on L.A. garment industry, January 1999
  • A global campaign to end sweatshops — with a comprehensive list of sources
  • The clothes tree: Do you know where your clothes have been? Follow the flow of production to see how contracting works in the garment industry
  • Sweatshop Watch — a coalition of labor, community, civil rights, immigrant rights, women’s and religious organizations, and individuals committed to eliminating sweatshop conditions in the garment industry with a comprehensive list of links to related organizations.
  • Don’t Sweat It: Jewish students fight to end sweatshops