This Day in Jewish History

1886: A Leading Yiddish Labor Agitator in New York Is Born

Unrelenting fighter for social justice that she was, Clara Lemlich Shavelson even helped unionize the staff at the old-age home where she spent her final years.

Wikimedia Commons

March 28, 1886, is the birthdate of Clara Lemlich Shavelson, a Yiddish-speaking labor leader and social activist, who spent nearly all of her long life fighting for social justice. Even at the Jewish old-age home where she spent her final years, Shavelson organized the maintenance staff.

Clara Lemlich was born in the village of Gorodok, in western Ukraine. As her family was subject to significant institutional anti-Semitism — the town school, for example, would not admit Jews — she was not permitted to speak Russian at home. Nonetheless, as a girl, Clara secretly taught herself to read and write Russian, and found work sewing buttonholes, and also writing letters for illiterate neighbors, to earn the money to buy herself books. These she kept hidden at home; once, when her father, who owned a grocery store, discovered her collection, he burned all her books.

Following the devastating Kishinev pogroms in 1903, the Lemlich family left the Russian empire, making its way to the United States, by way of England. They settled in New York’s Lower East Side in 1905, and within a week of their arrival, Clara had found work in a tailor shop. A passion for learning, however, remained a constant, and after a 12-hour day, she would stop at the free library on East Broadway for books. Her goal was to attend medical school.

Lemlich had become a convert to socialism even before leaving Eastern Europe; once in New York, she quickly became involved in labor-union activity. Within two years, she had founded Local 25 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, and was organizing strikes at tailoring shops in the city.

Clara Lemlich entered the public eye spontaneously, on November 22, 1909, at a meeting of shirtwaist makers in New York. After one labor leader after another, including American Federation of Labor head Samuel Gompers addressed the crowd at the Cooper Union college without endorsing any real action, she mounted the stage and declared, in Yiddish: “I have no further patience for talk. I am one of those who suffers from the abuses described here, and I move that we go on a general strike.”

Her words galvanized the crowd, which approved a strike, its member raising their hands to pledge their loyalty to the cause, lest “this hand wither from the arm I now raise.”

Wikimedia Commons

Lemlich was on the picket line every day of the strike, which continued until February 10 — even after she was attacked and suffered six broken ribs, and despite being arrested 17 times. But when work resumed, she found herself blacklisted, at which point she turned her energies to the women’s suffrage movement.

After marrying printer and union activist Joe Shavelson, in 1913, and moving to Brooklyn, Lemlich devoted herself to raising their three children. But her activism continued: Rent strikes against gouging landlords, bread strikes and butcher strikes, demonstrations and sit-ins about the need for more public housing and more schools. Later, she campaigned against nuclear proliferation.

She joined the American Communist Party, and in the 1950s, had her passport revoked after she visited the Soviet Union. When her husband became ill, and in 1951, died, Lemlich returned to the garment trade, working for another nine years, until her retirement.

Because of a technicality, related to the number of consecutive years she had worked in the industry, Lemlich was denied a pension from the ILGWU, the union she had done so much to promote – although she was eventually awarded two honorary stipends.

In 1960, Lemlich remarried, and when her second husband, Abraham Goldman, died, in 1967, she moved to Los Angeles, where her children lived. There, at the Jewish Home for the Aged, she encouraged the orderlies to unionize, and convinced the home’s management to join the United Farm Workers in its boycott of lettuce and grapes.

Clara Lemlich Shavelson died on July 12, 1982, at age 96.