A CENTURY BATTLING SWEATSHOPS AND IMPORTS
Byline: Arthur Friedman
NEW YORK — Founded in 1900, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union emerged from the Populist and Progressive reform movements of the time, which were spawned in the post-Civil War Industrial Revolution.
The union was initially plagued by infighting among ethnic groups, conflicts between skilled and unskilled workers, and seasonal work and recessions, problems that have persisted throughout the century.
A 1909 strike of New York shirtwaist and dressmakers against sweatshop conditions, dubbed the “Uprising of the 20,000,” led to “The Great Revolt,” a strike of 60,000 New York garment workers in 1910, which was settled by the famous “Protocol of Peace.”
Created at bilateral conferences presided over by Boston lawyer Louis D. Brandeis, who would later become a Supreme Court Justice, the protocol raised wages, reduced working hours, outlawed homework, guaranteed preference to union members in hiring, prohibited strikes and lockouts, and provided for settling disputes by impartial arbitration.
Probably the most notorious event in ILGWU history occurred in 1911 at the Triangle Shirtwaist Co., where a fire killed 146 garment workers, most of them Jewish immigrant women, working in a sweatshop in New York. The incident brought public attention to the plight of immigrant workers and prompted laws to protect laborers.
ILGWU membership grew to 100,000 by 1920. However, a disastrous 20-week strike in New York in 1926, led by a strongly Communist faction, left the union financially drained and virtually powerless. By 1931, the Great Depression’s unemployment helped shrink membership to 24,000.
But David Dubinsky, who became president of the union in 1932, used New Deal legislation as a basis for an organizing drive. The union grew from 45,000 members when Dubinksy took over in 1932 to 200,000 in 1934.
In 1938, the ILGWU and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America were founding members of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which unlike the American Federation of Labor had no formal discrimination against African-Americans or other minorities. When the AFL and CIO merged in 1955, the ILGWU and ACWA were charter members.
The ILGWU flourished under Dubinsky, who remained president until 1964. At the end of the 1960s, ILGWU membership peaked at about 450,000. Since then, membership has eroded to 160,000 members.
Similarly, the ACWA, founded in 1914, also grew under its president, Sidney Hillman, reaching about 360,000 members at its height in the late 1960s, only to shrink to about 200,000 members today.
The ACWA and the Textile Workers Union of America, founded in 1939, merged in 1976 to form the ACTWU. That same year they began a worldwide boycott of JP Stevens products. Four years later, the ACTWU signed its first contract, covering 4,000 workers, with the textile mill.
In 1958, the most dramatic strike in ILGWU history took place when 100,000 workers in eight states were mobilized. The strike was settled with many labor victories, including adoption of a union label.
Last year, the ILGWU went on strike against The Leslie Fay Cos. after the dress firm said it wanted to close its plants in Pennsylvania and move its unionized production offshore. This resulted in the largest ILGWU rally since the 1958 strike, with a march through the streets of the garment district here. The six-week strike ended in a compromise that saved half the 1,200 union jobs.
Controversy, such as the 1920s Communist influence, has tarnished the ILGWU’s image. In the 1950s through the 1970s, ILGWU trucking Local 102 was implicated in government investigations linking organized crime with the garment industry. Just this past December, members of ILGWU Local 10 were charged in a bribery scheme in which illegal payments were made to avoid contributing to the union’s health and welfare benefit fund.
A radical shift to offshore production, beginning in the 1970s, and more automation of domestic factories, has reduced membership and curtailed both unions’ political clout.
In recent years, the ILGWU and ACTWU have protested and lobbied against the North American Free Trade Agreement and GATT, saying those pacts will further decimate the domestic clothing industry by creating an unlevel playing field that only benefits developing countries. They lost those battles and now face a political climate that puts global trade ahead of domestic concerns.
On Monday the executive boards of the ILGWU and the ACTWU announced a merger, forming the Union of Needletrades, Industrial & Textile Employees. ILGWU president Jay Mazur becomes president of UNITE.