The workers, mostly teenage immigrant girls from the Lower East Side, had had enough by this time. Working in the terrible sweatshop conditions of turn of the century New York, they were no longer going to tolerate 70 hour work weeks, buying their own thread, no washroom breaks and low piece work pay.
The workers began picketing in front of the company, which hired men to help break up the strike. These men, primarily gang members working on behalf of ward bosses of Tammany Hall, disrupted the picket lines, insulting, threatening, and even being physically aggressive towards strikers. New York's police also assisted the company, arresting some of the picketers under various crimes including vagrancy and incitement. After five weeks, in response to concern that the strike might break, an emergency meeting of shirtwaist workers was called at Cooper Union.
Various labor leaders spoke to the crowd, including Samuel Gompers and Meyer London. But it was a newcomer, a woman named Clara Lemlich who called for a general strike of shirtwaist workers. Speaking in Yiddish to a mostly Jewish crowd, Lemlich described the indignities of sweatshop labor, from being insulted by bosses to not having a place to hang a hat. Her speech led to a general strike of shirtwaist workers across New York City, totaling approximately 20,000 strikers. The "Uprising of the 20,000" would be only a small step towards labour reform in the 20th century.
Employers across the industry responded as Triangle had, and within a month more than 700 women had been arrested by police, 19 of whom were sentenced to time in a workhouse. But public opinion turned against the companies. The image of young women being bullied by the police and company guards inspired sympathy, even among New York's upper crust.
The struggle and spirit of the women strikers caught the attention of suffragists. Wealthy progressive women like Anne Morgan (daughter of J.P. Morgan) , Alva Belmont and Inez Milholland (believed that all women—rich and poor—would be treated better if women had the right to vote. Alva saw the labor uprising as an opportunity to move the women strikers’ concerns into a broader feminist struggle. She arranged huge rallies, fund-raising events and even spent nights in court paying the fines for arrested strikers.
Bowing to public pressure, and concerned that the strike would continue through fashion season, the shirtwaist companies agreed in early 1910 to negotiate with the workers. Two weeks after bargaining began, an arbitrated agreement was reached on February 13,1910.
The work week was to be limited to 52 hours, workers were given four holidays with pay, employers were required to supply all tools necessary for the job, and a grievance committee was established to deal with individual issues that came up.
The strike was only partially successful. A number of companies, including the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, refused to sign the agreement. But even so, the strike won a number of important gains. It encouraged workers in the industry to take action to improve their conditions, brought public attention to the sweatshop conditions.
Several months later, in 1910, the ILGWU led an even larger strike, later named "The Great Revolt", of 60,000 cloak makers. After months of picketing, prominent members of the Jewish community, mediated between the ILGWU and the Manufacturers Association. It led to the agreement in which the ILGWU won union recognition and higher wages, as well as a rudimentary health benefits program.
Though some measure of progress had been obtained, the movement would not reach its full potential for another year. In March 1911 a fire on the Triangle factory would take 146 lives. Many of the workers would not be trapped in the building because exit doors had been locked to keep out union organizers. Fire ladders which only stretched to the seventh floor could not help the workers trapped on the eighth and ninth floors. Many young women jumped to their deaths.
After the "Uprising of the 20,000" it would still take an enormous tragedy to spur on long overdue labor reform.