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International Ladies Garment Workers Union


INTERNATIONAL LADIES GARMENT WORKERS UNION (ILGWU), founded in 1900, a major factor in American labor, radical, socialist, and Jewish history. The first leaders of the ILGWU, moderate Jewish socialists and labor veterans, were the victorious survivors of many years of labor struggles and internecine political warfare in the New York garment industry, which had been inundated by immigrant Jewish "greenhorns." These "Columbus tailors" found their advocate in Abraham Cahan's Jewish Daily Forward, which was struggling to assimilate them into socialist-flavored Americanism.

As a small, moribund, craft-minded organization, the early ILGWU narrowly beat off an Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) challenge in 1905–1907.But an immigrant flood revitalized the Jewish labor movement in the aftermath of the 1905 Russian Revolution. Radicalized by the revolution and trained in trade unionism by the Jewish Labor Bund, this huge wave of immigrants waged a series of mass garment strikes. The 1909–1910 "rising of the twenty thousand" in the New York shirt-waist industry was the first mass strike of women workers in American history. The weak ILGWU left much of the day-to-day administration of the strike in the hands of rank-and-file workers, laborite-feminist activists from the Women's Trade Union League, and woman volunteers from the Socialist Party (SP).The success of the strike paved the way for the unionizing "great revolt" of fifty thousand New York cloak makers, mostly males, in 1910, which established the ILGWU as the third-largest member of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) by 1914.

The "great revolt" was resolved through a "protocol of peace," brokered by Louis Brandeis, that was widely hailed as the Progressive Era model for permanent cooperation between capital and labor. This Progressive pipe dream broke down rapidly. The ILGWU was shaken

by a massive cloak makers' rebellion against the protocol that prefigured later internal conflicts. The combatants reached a settlement through SP mediation, solidifying the union's Socialist ties, and the ILGWU became a powerful American institution. The union initially opposed World War I, and hailed the Russian Revolution, but its officers continued to face rank-and-file leftist dissent. They hinted that youthful female dissidents radicalized by the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and revolution abroad were victims of sexual frustration.

During the great labor upsurge of 1919, dissidents formed workers councils, inspired by workers' councils in Seattle and Petrograd. The ILGWU formed the strongest trade union base of the early American Communist Party (CP).The political, generational, ethnic, and gender contradictions within the ILGWU led to a decade of internecine warfare between pro-CP insurgents and pro-SP union leaders. The hardnosed anticommunist Morris Sigman, a former Wobbly (IWW member), kept a tenuous grasp on the ILGWU's national machinery but had to concede control of the New York ILGWU to the rebels. The peak of the insurgency was the left-led 1926 New York cloak makers' strike. The strike achieved ambiguous results, which Sigman seized on as his golden opportunity to purge the left New York officers, touching off a bloody civil war in the whole garment industry. Several lives were lost, and scores of workers were hospitalized. ILGWU leaders managed to regain control with assistance from business, government, and organized crime. The ILGWU's street general was SP spokesperson Abe Beckerman, who was involved in the Jewish gangster "Lepke" Buchalter's infamous "Murder Incorporated." When the dust cleared, little was left of the ILGWU. Wages plunged, hours lengthened, and sweatshop conditions were restored.

The left attempted to replace the ILGWU with a "red union," but the effort was stillborn due to bureaucratic dithering by the "Lovestonites," a CP faction led by Jay Lovestone, and ultraleftist policies imposed by the increasingly Stalinized CP. The ensuing purge of the Lovestonites from the party enabled the ILGWU to regain control of the trade.

The ILGWU experienced a resurgence during the New Deal. The Jewish needle trades unions had a friend in the White House in Franklin D. Roosevelt. The massive ILGWU strikes in 1933 and 1934 benefited from a rare combination of government sympathy, weak resistance from manufacturers, and a tremendous release of pent-up militancy. Soon the ILGWU totally dominated

the industry. The ILGWU leader David Dubinsky, a veteran of the Jewish Labor Bund, became one of America's most important union leaders. A Tammany politician quipped that "the Jews have drei veltn—di velt, yene velt, un Roosevelt" (three worlds—this world, the other world, and Roosevelt).Consequently, during the Holocaust the ILGWU did not militantly challenge Roosevelt's refusal to admit Jewish refugees. As late as 1947 hourly wages for ILGWU members were higher than wages for autoworkers. The New Deal alliance between the Roosevelt administration and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which shaped later American trade unionism, was molded on the template of the special relationship between Roosevelt and Jewish Socialist needle trades officials like Dubinsky.

During the Roosevelt and Truman administrations the ILGWU pioneered many hallmarks of American unionism. But while most American workers experienced dramatically increased prosperity in the Eisenhower era, ILGWU leaders, fearful of nonunion competition, orchestrated a decline in garment wage levels that made the ILGWU notorious for "fighting for lower wages." The ILGWU experienced a major demographic transformation. Jews exited the shop floor, replaced by blacks, Puerto Ricans, and eventually Asians. By 2002, Jews in the garment industry were predominantly union officers or employers.

After World War II the ILGWU, in close collaboration with the U.S. government, threw its considerable resources into the struggle against communism. Love-stone became the ILGWU director of international affairs and the key personal link between the AFL-CIO, led by George Meany, a Dubinsky protégé, and the Central Intelligence Agency. After Dubinsky retired in 1966, the ILGWU became one of the foremost labor opponents of foreign imports.

In the late twentieth century the rapidly declining ILGWU attempted to organize new immigrant sweat-shop labor and defended the rights of undocumented workers. But the old pattern of collaboration with employers to protect the industry persisted. Indeed, some Hong Kong sweatshops moved to New York in the 1980s and set up as union shops. Former ILGWU officials dominated The Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees, which was formed in 1995 through a merger of the ILGWU with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, an old rival based in the men's clothing industry.


Dubinsky, David, and A.H. Raskin. David Dubinsky: A Life with Labor. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977.

Epstein, Melech. Jewish Labor in U.S.A: An Industrial, Political, and Cultural History of the Jewish Labor Movement. 2 vols. New York: 1950–1953.Reprint, New York: Ktav Publishing House, 1969.

Foner, Philip S. "Revolt of the Garment Workers (I and II)." In History of the Labor Movement in the United States. Vol.5. New York: International Publishers, 1988.

Gurowsky, David. "Factional Disputes within the ILGWU, 1919–1928." Ph.D. diss., State University of New York at Binghamton, 1978.

Kwong, Peter, and JoAnn Lum. "Hard Labor in Chinatown: How the Other Half Lives Now." Nation, 18 June 1988.

Liebman, Arthur. Jews and the Left. New York: Wiley, 1979.

Myerson, Michael. "ILGWU: Fighting for Lower Wages." Ramparts, October 1969.

Tyler, Gus. Look for the Union Label: A History of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1995.

John DeweyHolmes

See alsoClothing Industry ; Labor ; Trade Unions .

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International Ladies Garment Workers Union

International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), former U.S. labor union, formed in 1900 by the amalgamation of seven local unions. At the turn of the century most of the workers in the garment industry were Jewish immigrants, whose attempts at organization were hampered by clashes between anarchists and socialists; this heritage of strife was carried over into the ILGWU, and in its early years many members were sympathetic to various radical movements. Despite these conflicts the union grew rapidly in its first years. However, the depression of 1903 and the open-shop campaign launched by the newly formed National Association of Manufacturers wiped out many hard-won gains.

By 1908 it appeared as if the union might be merged with the United Garment Workers, then the American Federation of Labor (AFL) union of men's tailors. At that point the union launched two spectacular and successful mass strikes (1909–11) in the garment district of New York City. As a result of the strikes, the dress manufacturers agreed to deal with the ILGWU and its affiliates. That settlement also embodied the famous Protocol of Peace, which was proposed by Louis D. Brandeis and was based on the concept of perpetual economic peace in the union. Although that concept was in sharp contrast to the radical trade-union philosophy then prevailing among garment workers, it served as a model of cooperation between labor and management.

The Communists' drive for control of the union during the 1920s was defeated by moderates under the leadership of David Dubinsky. Although the struggle seriously hurt the ILGWU, the union benefited from the labor policies of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and membership rose to 300,000 in 1942. In 1937 the ILGWU briefly joined the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO); it then temporarily became an independent union and finally rejoined the AFL in 1940. Under the presidency of Dubinsky, the ILGWU grew into one of the nation's most powerful and progressive unions, with a wide range of member benefits. The ILGWU gained the respect of the manufacturers by its willingness to assist employers in the industry with loans and technical assistance. Dubinsky retired in 1966. The following year a $1 million Dubinsky Foundation was established, with the goal of making grants to causes and institutions in line with ILGWU objectives.

From 1968 to the early 1990s the union lost more than 300,000 workers as a result of low cost imports and the transfer of factories overseas. In 1995 the 125,000-member ILGWU merged with the 175,000-member Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers' Union to form the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE). UNITE merged in 2004 with HERE (the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union) to Unite Here. Five years later union officials largely representing the former UNITE voted to secede from the larger group and, as Workers United, affiliate with the Service Employees International Union.

See L. L. Lorwin, The Women's Garment Workers (1924); B. Stolberg, Tailor's Progress (1944); M. D. Danish, The World of David Dubinsky (1957); G. Tyler, Look for the Union Label (1998).

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