Byline: Arthur Friedman — With contributions from Matt Nannery

NEW YORK — Faced with shrinking memberships, ever-increasing imports, and fading political clout, the ILGWU and the ACTWU are headed toward a merger, culminating years of speculation and creating a 360,000-member labor force.
“We are in negotiations, and we’re optimistic that we will have a proposal ready in mid-February to present to the boards of both unions,” Susan Cowell, a vice president of the 160,000-member ILGWU, said Friday.
Among the points being negotiated, said Cowell, is how the merged organization would be structured, who would become its president, and what the union would be called.
The International Ladies Garment Workers Union, founded in 1900, represents primarily women’s apparel workers, while the Amalgamated Clothing & Textile Workers Union, which had its origins in 1914, represents mostly men’s apparel and textile workers. Both are members of the AFL-CIO.
An ACTWU spokeswoman said Friday that the current proposal calls for ILGWU president Jay Mazur, 62, to head the joint union. Neither Mazur or Jack Sheinkman, president of the ACTWU, could be reached for comment, but Cowell and other industry sources said Sheinkman, 68, has indicated he will likely retire.
Cowell said the merger proposal, which was first reported in Friday’s edition of the Forward, the national weekly Jewish newspaper, is expected to come before the boards of each union when they hold separate but concurrent meetings in Bal Harbour, Fla., Feb. 14-17.
If the long-expected merger is approved, an announcement could come as early as the annual meeting of the AFL-CIO executive council — also in Bal Harbour — on Feb. 20. Union members would then be asked to ratify the agreement when they hold their annual conventions in Miami Beach in June.
By merging the two unions, Mazur and Sheinkman are trying to preserve the legacy of their most famous predecessors, David Dubinsky of the ILGWU and Sidney Hillman of the ACTWU. Both men drew on their socialist political ideals to lobby for changes in the workplace and fight for the rights of immigrant workers.
The efforts of these organizations were instrumental in bringing about a social awareness that resulted in things many people today take for granted: minimum-wage laws, standardized working conditions, child labor laws, pension funds and health care.
Dubinsky, a onetime garment cutter who was elected president of the ILGWU in 1932, served in that post for 34 years. In just the first two years of his presidency, membership expanded from 24,000 to 217,000. It eventually rose to a peak membership of some 350,000 members around 1970. Dubinsky became the first ILGWU president to be elected to the executive council of the AFL and played a crucial role in organizing unions in industries such as steel and auto.
Now, the two once-powerful unions are looking to merge in order to survive and keep alive the labor movement the two groups helped to define during the 20th century.
Manufacturers and industry groups feel the merger has been a long time in coming and is a logical step that will create a new synergy and offer greater representation for members.
Bruce Herman, president of the Garment Industry Development Corporation, said “there seems to be a certain inevitability” to the merger. The GIDC, a 10-year-old labor-management organization, was created by the ILGWU and is partially funded by it in conjunction with industry management organizations and the city and state of New York.
“The merger talk is quite real and is a rational step that makes a lot of sense,” Herman said. “Both organizations bring a certain strength to the marriage. Each is obviously strong within individual industry — the ILGWU in women’s wear and the ACTWU in men’s and textiles. The ACTWU is more diversified geographically, with strongholds in places like North Carolina and South Carolina, as well as Chicago and in Texas, where it has organized large Levi Strauss facilities, while the ILGWU still has a great concentration in New York City and other parts of the Northeast.”
Herman feels the merger will allow for some cost cutting and consolidation, allowing for greater efficiency in operations and in dealing with the problems facing the domestic manufacturing industry.
During the last 20 years in particular, each union has seen its membership tumble by more than half, as U.S. apparel makers sought cheaper labor in places like the Far East and Latin America.
While the GIDC is not directly involved with the ACTWU, Herman said he’s “very enthusiastic about the possibility of expanding our base and sharing our expertise, and at the same time learn from their experiences and base of knowledge.”
Paul Lau, general manager of the Greater Blouse, Skirt & Undergarment Association, the large contractor group in New York’s Chinatown, said he thinks the proposed merger is a good thing.
“If they can give us more manufacturers that are looking to work with union shops, that would be a very important development,” said Lau, whose organization represents ILGWU shops that employ about 50,000 workers.
“Hopefully, it will improve the relationship between the manufacturer and the contractors. The ACTWU has contracts with large companies that have their own factories, and maybe they can become interested in doing contract work.”
Tailored clothing manufacturers under ACTWU contract agreed that the merger would help both unions operate from a position of strength.
“It makes the unions financially stronger,” said Homi Patel, Hartmarx president and chairman of the Clothing Manufacturers Association.
Patel admitted the possibility of a merger unions has been bandied about for decades, but stressed that this time is different.
“This time it’s going to happen,” he said. “The financial situations of both unions have deteriorated over the years, and membership roles have declined. It makes eminent sense.”
Patel said Hartmarx has contracts with both unions, but said the merger should have little effect on his company. He added, however, that the unions currently operate differently.
“The Amalgamated is more decentralized than the ILG, but I don’t think the proposed merger will make much difference in our dealings with them,” he said.