Clara Lemlich: A Strike Leader's Diary

On November 22, 1909, New York City garment workers gathered in a mass meeting at Cooper Union to discuss pay cuts, unsafe working conditions and other grievances. After two hours of indecisive speeches by male union leaders, a young Jewish woman strode down the aisle and demanded the floor. Speaking in Yiddish, she passionately urged her coworkers to go out on strike. Clara Lemlich, a fledgling union organizer, thus launched the 'Uprising of the 20,000,' when, two days later, garment workers walked out of shops all over the city, effectively bringing production to a halt.

A dramatization of that incident, re-created in the Hollywood film I'm Not Rappaport, movingly introduces the documentary portrait CLARA LEMLICH, which recounts the life of the Ukrainian-born immigrant. Like thousands of other young women, Lemlich found work in a clothing factory where she worked 7 days a week, from 60 to 80 hours, for less than a living wage. In her burning desire to get an education Lemlich read widely and organized a study group to discuss women's problems. Her success as an organizer, which included numerous arrests and beatings by strikebreakers, eventually led to her election to the executive board of the International Ladies Garment Workers' Union.

Lemlich's story is movingly recounted through interviews with her daughter and grandchildren, dramatic readings from her diary, family photos and archival footage, strike songs in Yiddish, an interview with labor historian Alice Kessler-Harris, a visit to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and excerpts from silent films of the era.

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In addition to its biographical portrait, CLARA LEMLICH also chronicles the historic ILGWU strike, which demonstrated to the male leadership that women could be good union members and strikers. The union negotiated a settlement in February 1910 that led to improvements in wages as well as working and safety conditions. One of the companies that refused to sign the agreement was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, where, the following year, a fire resulted in the death of 146 young women, a tragedy that galvanized public support for the union movement.

"Highly Recommended! Well worth viewing for a glimpse into the history of the labor movement and to discover the struggles involved."—Educational Media Reviews Online

"Lemlich helped bring a new dimension to the male-dominated world of socialism and labor organizing in the early twentieth century…Her story is one that needs to be told."—Booklist

"Powerful! A fascinating viewing experience."—Association of Jewish Libraries Newsletter

"Such a tribute to the courage and social commitment of a Jewish labor leader, who fought the injustices associated with resulting outrages, such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, belongs in college classrooms engaged in the history of feminism and labor, especially those stressing the personal lives of the men and women involved. "—Films for the Feminist Classroom

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Select Accolades

  • 2006 National Women's Studies Association Film Festival
  • Gold Hugo, 2005 Chicago Film Festival
  • 2005 Toronto Jewish Film Festival
  • 2005 Vancouver Jewish Film Festival
  • 2005 Montreal Jewish Film Festival
  • 2004 Cinema du Réel
  • 2004 Visions du Réel


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