Academic journal article Film & History

Clara Lemlich: A Strike Leader's Diary (2004)

Academic journal article Film & History

Clara Lemlich: A Strike Leader's Diary (2004)

Article excerpt

Clara Lemlich: A Strike Leader's Diary (2004)

Directed by Alex Szalat

Distributed by Icarus Films

51 minutes

Alez Szalat's Clara Lemlich: A Strike Leader's Diary goes beyond the history of Clara Lemlich Shavelson's early activism into contemporary issues of family, labor, and immigration. Bringing together historic and contemporary scenes of urban streets, interviews with descendents, historians, and labor leaders, labor songs, along with still images of sweatshops, union activities, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, the film is a sophisticated treatment of the relationship between past and present.

Clara Lemlich was born in 1886 near Kishinev in the Ukraine. After a pogrom in Kishinev in 1903, she moved to the New York City with her family. There she found work in the garment trades, working long hours and spending late nights at the Broadway Branch of the New York Public Library, educating herself in literature and social theory. In 1909 she delivered a rousing speech in Yiddish at Cooper Union that helped solidify support for what came to be known as the Uprising of 20,000, a strike of mostly young female Jewish and Italian workers for better pay and working conditions. As noted by labor historian Alice Kessler-Harris in an interview in the film, Lemlich was the "spark that struck a tinderbox" in the strikes of 1909. While the strike ended with modest gains by workers, it also demonstrated to the male leadership of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union that women were indeed capable of conducting a strike. The workers' demands were placed in dramatic context in 1911, when 146 young female immigrants lost their lives in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire. Drawing on the richness of the primary source material, Szalat demonstrates the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual character of the strike and the gender dynamics of labor protest in this era.

The film opens with Lemlich Shavelson's daughter and granddaughters watching a dramatization of the famous Cooper Union speech from the film Vm Not Rappaport, and interviews with descendents are interwoven in the biographical narrative. Daughter Rita Margules and three grandchildren remember the lessons of their famous relative. They comb through photos, walk the streets of New York's Lower East Side, and make a visit to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, where they discuss some of the family tensions and joys created by activist daughters and parents. …

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