Just in time for Labor Day comes a recording of a haunting new musical piece commemorating an infamous chapter in American labor history.
The title comes from Clara Lemlich, a labor organizer who used her voice to rally support for demonstrations and strikes. Years later, looking back on her activist past, she said: “Ah, then I had fire in my mouth.”
An immigrant from the Ukraine, Lemlich came to New York City and found work in “the needle trade,” where workers faced long hours, low pay, and brutal conditions.
“We were required to supply our own sewing machines and carry them to and from work,” she said years later in an interview. “We were also obliged to bring our own needles, thread, knives, irons.”
Workers were at the machines from 7am to 8pm, with just a half hour break. They worked 65, sometimes 75 hours a week — with no rights, no protection. The pay was about $6 a week.
“There is just one row of machines that the daylight ever gets to — that is the front row, nearest the window,” Lemlich recalled. “The girls at all the other rows of machines back in the shops have to work by gaslight, by day as well as by night. Oh, yes, the shops keep the work going at night, too.”
Lemlich joined the Communist Party, became involved in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, and began leading strikes — at one point her ribs were broken when she was attacked at a demonstration.
On November 22, 1909, thousands of workers gathered outside Cooper Union in Lower Manhattan, protesting the sweatshop owners and also the American Federation of Labor, which opposed organizing women.
For two hours, one labor leader after another took the stage and called for solidarity. To Lemlich it was all talk and no action. Finally she stepped out in front and announced that the time had come to act.
We don’t know exactly what she said. Nobody wrote down her words. But one newspaper called her speech “a Yiddish philippic.”
As Lemlich later recalled:
“I remember I said that I had been listening to all the speakers, and I had no further patience for talk. ‘I am a working girl,’ I said, ‘And one of those striking against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in generalities. What we are here for is to decide whether or not to strike.’ And finally I offered a resolution that a general strike be declared. I was just saying what all the workers were thinking, but they were just too afraid to say.”
Lemlich’s words galvanized action, and by the following evening thousands of workers had walked out in what became known as the Uprising of 20,000.
For eleven brutal winter weeks the strike dragged on. Finally, on February 10, 1910, the strikers won their goal and secured union contracts at nearly every garment company.
Then, just over a year later, on March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the top floors of the Asch building, home to the Triangle Shirtwaist factory — one of two garment companies that had resisted the unionizers.
The flames raced across the bolts of cloth and the paper patterns hanging from the ceiling. Trapped inside, dozens of workers leapt to their death from the upper windows — girls as young as fourteen, from Russia, Eastern Europe, and Southern Italy.
“Fire in My Mouth” tells the heart-wrenching story.
Composer Julia Wolfe researched archives, drew on oral histories, and wove Italian and Yiddish folk songs into her multi-media piece, first performed last January by the New York Philharmonic.
To portray the hum of the sewing machines she used an aeoliphone, a wind instrument that produces sound through vibration. She also scripted in 36 pairs of whirring scissors, “played” by three dozen singers in the choir.
“Fire in My Voice” closes with a solemn recitation of the names of the victims, one by one.
Their death helped change the way New York and the nation thought about the labor movement, safety, and the struggle for worker’s rights. Spurred by the tragedy, a few months later New York passed important factory safety laws.
No one recorded Lemlich’s words that day at Cooper Union, or at the other strikes and demonstrations she led. But the few lines she recalled appear in Speaking While Female, an online resource with hundreds of hard-to-find women’s speeches.
Lemlich’s words are lost to time, but not her courage. By remembering her this Labor Day, we honor the memory of the victims — and those who still struggle for humane working conditions.
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