APPAREL UNIONS ‘UNITE’ TO SURVIVE
Byline: Arthur Friedman — with contributions from Rosemary Feitelberg and Michael McNamara, New York, and Joyce Barrett, Washington
NEW YORK — Vowing to continue the fight for workers’ rights while battling global competition and a shrinking U.S. industry, the ILGWU and ACTWU will merge into one union with 355,000 members.
Under the merger agreement announced Monday, the new union will be known as the Union of Needletrades, Industrial & Textile Employees, or UNITE. ILGWU president Jay Mazur, 62, will become president of UNITE after the merger, which was approved Thursday by the unions’ executive boards. Mazur has been president of the ILGWU since 1986.
As reported, the unions confirmed last month they were in talks for a merger (WWD, Jan. 30).
Jack Sheinkman, 68, who has been president of ACTWU since 1987, will retire once the merger agreement is ratified at conventions of both unions in June. Sheinkman will continue as chairman of the Amalgamated Bank of New York, the only 100 percent union-owned bank in the U.S.
The ILGWU convention is scheduled for June 23-27; the ACTWU convention, June 28. They will be followed by the first UNITE convention, June 29-30. All three meetings will be at the Hotel Fontainbleau in Miami Beach.
To launch the new union, UNITE will embark on a major $10 million organizing drive. “We’re not going out of business,” Mazur made it clear in a telephone interview from Bal Harbour, Fla., where the AFL-CIO Executive Council is meeting. He described as “wishful thinking” the comments of those who say organized labor is dead in the U.S.
“The reemergence of sweatshops and the unbridled union-busting of countless employers, large and small, in recent years will be met by a powerful and aggressive organizing drive,” Mazur said.
Mazur said the two unions share a “rich, common heritage of dynamic social unionism and a commitment to working in politics and the legislative arena, as well as at the bargaining table and on the picket lines,” to improve the lives of working people.
“This was the right moment to bring organized labor in the apparel and textile industries together under one roof to confront the multinational corporations and the new world economic order,” Mazur said. It will enable “us to better compete with the global marketplace,” he said.
“By merging it adds to our political strength. Our current and retired members will number over 600,000. And that’s a significant force.”
Sheinkman said the merger will better equip members to meet the challenges ahead. He cited the unions’ histories of fighting for the Fair Labor Standards Act, battling sweatshops, outlawing child labor and for shorter work weeks, national unemployment insurance and the minimum wage.
“Sadly, we now face a Republican Congress that seeks to replace 60 years of social gains with a future in which corporations call the shots, and workers are pushed back,” Sheinkman said. “We felt this was the right time for us to harness our resources, staff and programs.”
Both Sheinkman and Masur said talk of a merger stemmed back 50 years to the days of David Dubinsky and Sidney Hillman, who led the ILGWU and the ACTWU respectively during their most powerful years.
Even though many observers claim the merger is a last-ditch survival strategy, Sheinkman said, “We are merging from strength.”
He said the merged union, comprising 200,000 active ACTWU members and 155,000 active ILGWU members, will be the largest industrial union in the southeastern U.S. and in the New York-New Jersey metropolitan region. In addition, UNITE will have a significant presence in many other areas of the Northeast, Midwest and South, as well as in California, Canada and Puerto Rico.
The new union will have 228,000 retired members. The international headquarters of UNITE will be at 1710 Broadway here, taking over ILGWU offices. A new union logo and label will be designed by Paul Davis, the renowned artist who has created posters for the New York Shakespeare Festival and for other unions.
Mazur and Sheinkman pointed to the need to concentrate on domestic manufacturing as a source of quality quick-response and fast-turn manufacturing. Sheinkman also said ACTWU has been successful in diversifying its membership into industries such as auto parts, packaging and dry cleaning. He said the new union should continue its effort to organize internationally. Two years ago, he noted, ACTWU organized some manufacturers in the free trade zone in the Dominican Republic.
Despite the fact that in 1994 the apparel and textile industries employed about 1.8 million manufacturing workers in the U.S. and Canada, more than in the steel or auto industries, union membership and overall employment is about half of what it was 35 years ago.
While few deny the union legacy of improving worker rights and benefits, there is a general agreement that the future of domestic manufacturing and unionism is in doubt.
There is strong public sentiment that unions have “outlived their usefulness” and are a deterrent to economic growth. However, pro-unionists point to organized labor’s accomplishments and argue, “Where would we be without them?”
Josh Freeman, a labor historian and associate professor of history at Columbia University, said the unions see this as an occasion to relaunch themselves, particularly in the Northern section of the country, where membership is heavily concentrated. “If they’re aggressive and imaginative with their strategy, they would be more effective in representing their garment workers and textile workers,” he said. “If the merger simply puts together two unions that are under siege and mainly shrinking, they won’t make a difference.”
While the ILGWU has more financial backing, ACTWU is more dynamic in recruiting and advocating for members’ rights, he said.
Sheldon Silverberg, senior partner at the law firm of Silverberg, Stonehill & Goldsmith, said the merger is symbolic of the state of the apparel industry in the U.S.
“There is no longer enough left to compete with each other for shops or members,” Silverberg said. “Like any merger, there can be economies achieved, and they can focus their efforts on maintaining and organizing what’s left of domestic production.”
While the merged union will represent more workers, he doesn’t think it will gain much political clout, because the unions usually supported the same issues and candidates anyhow. He also acknowledged the accomplishments of unions as part of the organized labor movement over the years, but said, “Those gains brought about were a result of the conditions of the times. Today, we’re faced with worldwide competition for trade and for production, and I don’t know if anything can be done to change that.
“The stores are shopping every Third World country looking for cheaper production and putting pressure on the manufacturer to do the same. In the short term, the merger could have some benefits, but in the long run, I don’t see any future for apparel production in this country.”
On Capitol Hill, supporters and foes of organized labor say it has to change its ways if it expects to survive.
Rep. William Goodling (R., Pa.) said that as chairman of the House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee, which has jurisdiction over labor matters, his goal is to “bring about an attitude of cooperation, not confrontation, between labor and management. If organized labor sticks with its old ways, it could wipe us out of worldwide competition.”
Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Ohio), staunchly pro-labor on behalf of her Toledo constituents, also said organized labor must reform. While union membership has declined just as manufacturing employment has, labor also has neglected the underpaid workers who don’t work in the plants, Kaptur said.
Labor has to have more women represented in the hierarchy, has to take back control of its pension funds and has to address the issues that concern workers, she said.
“The trade unions have to stop presenting themselves as an insiders’ club,” Kaptur said. “They have to participate in the partnership of governing.”
Goodling blames Congress for much of the antagonism between labor and management.
“All of the legislation we’ve passed deals with confrontation,” he said. “Everything involves punitive or compensatory damages, things that don’t help anyone but lawyers.”
If organized labor doesn’t meet the needs of working Americans, workers will create their own organizations, Kaptur predict
“Labor has to look beyond its plant-orientation,” he said. “They have to adapt.”
While many manufacturers look at the unions as adversaries, there is some empathy for their plight.
George Shuster, president of Cranston Print Works Co., said he sees the merger as a “reflection of both parties seeing the need to come together to fight the common enemy, and that’s global competition.”
One veteran Seventh Avenue manufacturer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, “The unions are caught in a catch-22. The better they do for their members in terms of benefits, the sooner they’re going to be put out of business. No amount of union pressure can compete with the lure of cheaper imports.”
Another industry executive requesting anonymity said government trade policy was abandoning the immigrant worker, who has always been the heart and soul of the ILGWU and the ACTWU.
“To organize a shop today is to put it out of business,” the executive said. “The union keeps fighting for better wages and increases in the minimum wage, but nobody is telling these foreign countries that they have to raise wages.”
“The battle of the sweatshops will go on, as will our fight for an even playing field when it comes to foreign trade,” Mazur said. “Our efforts will not diminish in any way, and for those that say organized labor is dead in this country, I say that’s wishful thinking from those that think workers’ rights do not need protecting.
“We’re not going out of business. But it is true that our membership and our industry has been diminished. Labor is in trouble, just as this country is in trouble. We’ve tilted the scales of trade, and millions of jobs have been lost.”
In announcing the merger, the unions made several other executive changes. Arthur R. Loevy, who has been secretary-treasurer of the ACTWU since 1989, will hold that same title with UNITE. Irwin Solomon, general secretary-treasurer of the ILGWU since 1986, will retire.
Bruce S. Raynor, executive vice president of ACTWU since 1993, and Edgar Romney, executive vice president of the ILGWU since 1989, will become executive vice presidents of UNITE.