Today's Articles

People, Locations, Episodes

Mon, 07.01.2024

Black History and the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union

The International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union

*Black history and the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) is affirmed on this date in 1900.

The ILGWU, whose members were in the women's clothing industry, was once one of the largest labor unions in the United States, one of the first U.S. unions to have a primarily female membership and influence in the labor history of the 1920s and 1930s. The ILGWU was founded in New York City by seven local unions; the union multiplied but began to stagnate as the conservative leadership favored the interests of skilled workers, such as cutters. This did not sit well with most immigrant workers, particularly Jewish workers with a background in Bundist activities in Tsarist Russia, or with Polish and Italian workers, many of whom had strong socialist and anarchist leanings.

The ILGWU was able to turn the partial victory of the Great Revolt into a lasting victory; within two years, it had organized roughly ninety percent of the cloak makers in the industry in New York City. It improved benefits in later contracts and obtained an unemployment insurance fund for its members in 1919. At the same time, political splits within the union were growing. The Socialist Party split in 1919, leaving its left wing to form the Communist Party USA. Those left-wing socialists challenged the undemocratic structure of the ILGWU, which gave every local an equal vote in electing its leaders, regardless of the number of workers that the local represented and the accommodations that the ILGWU leadership had made in bargaining with the employers.

Left-wing activists, drawing inspiration from the shop stewards' movement that had swept through British labor in the preceding decade, started building their strength at the shop floor level. The Communist Party did not intervene in ILGWU politics until around 1921, as it attempted to create a base for itself in the working class and the unions within the AFL. The party had its most tremendous success and failure in that effort in the 1920s in the garment trades, where workers had experience with mass strikes and socialist politics were part of the everyday discourse. In the late 1920s, the ILGWU focused on recruiting African American women. Floria Pinkney, a Black dressmaker, was instrumental in this focus. Pinkney spoke alongside the president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. At a 1929 ILGWU meeting in Harlem, A. Philip Randolph focused on enrolling Black women.

The union's membership changed from being predominantly Jewish and Italian to immigrant workers: mainly from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and China in New York, the east coasts, and from Mexico, Central America, and Asia in Los Angeles and other western and southern centers of the industry. The union's leadership had less and less in common with its membership and very often had no experience in the trade itself. The union won few gains in workers' wages and benefits in the years after World War II. It gradually lost its ability to keep sweatshop conditions from returning, even in the former center of its strength in New York.

In the last decade of David Dubinsky's governance of the ILGWU tenure, some of these new members began to rebel, protesting their exclusion from positions of power within the union. That rebellion failed: the established leadership had too strong a hold on the official structure of the union in an industry in which members were scattered across several small shops and in which power was concentrated in the upper echelons of the union rather than in the locals. Without the support of a mass movement that would have given the majority a compelling voice, individual insurgents were either marginalized or co-opted.

The union also found it nearly impossible to organize garment workers in communities such as Los Angeles, even when going after established manufacturers. Organizing on a shop-by-shop basis proved useless, given the spread of "fly by night" contractors, the number of workers willing to take striking or fired workers' jobs, the uncertain immigration status of many workers, and the kinship connections that bound many workers to their foremen and other low-level managers. The union found itself in 1995 in nearly the same position it had been in more than ninety years earlier, but without any prospect of the mass upsurge that had produced the general strikes of 1909 and 1910.

The union, generally referred to as the "ILGWU" or the "ILG," merged with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union in the 1990s to form the Union of Needle Trade, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE). In 2004, UNITE merged with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE) to create a new union known as UNITE HERE. The two unions represented 250,000 workers, down from the ILGWU's peak membership of 450,000 in 1969.  

New Poem Each Day

Poetry Corner

O Africa, know thou not my call? Know thy rivers not my love? Claim thy mountains not my heart? O Africa! Homeland of my own! I come with my heart afire; I come with... SONG OF INNOCENCE by Julius E. Thompson.
Read More