Amalgamated Clothing Workers (ACW)

views updated


Founded in 1914, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACW) was one of the nation's first independent industrial unions. Its leadership was largely drawn from the Jewish political left, including socialists like president Sidney Hillman, anarchists, syndicalists, and others. Targeting workers in the profitable men's clothing industry, the ACW actively organized women and immigrant—especially southern and eastern European—workers. The ACW experienced its first successes in the 1910s, in an industry rapidly undergoing structural changes, where labor organizers were bedeviled by production divisions between "primary sector" firms like Hart, Schaffner & Marx that operated on a large-scale, rationalized shop basis, and garment industry subcontractors who engaged in the most exploitative forms of sweated-labor production. By the time of the Great Depression, the ACW had established itself as one of the leading independent industrial unions, although the most skilled workers in some shops, like cutters and tailors (called "labor aristocrats," sometimes derisively), remained outside of the organization.

The economic contraction of the early Depression years devastated the ACW. By some estimates, only 10 percent of the members of the ACW were employed in January 1932, while union officials negotiated temporary wage cuts (euphemistically termed "loans") to keep shops open and members employed. Both child labor and sweated labor expanded within the industry; in Baltimore, nearly 25 percent of women workers in the industry labored in illegal conditions, and enforcement of local labor codes proved impossible. Open shop employers organized to protect their interests. In New York, racketeering and criminal activity affected several locals; Hillman himself brought charges against corrupt union officials associated with the Jewish underworld. As conditions worsened, president Hillman vilified both the Herbert Hoover administration and the craft-based American Federation of Labor for their staunch adherence to the ethic of voluntarism. Militant leaders like Hillman called for a "new unionism" that linked workers' demands to government intervention in the economy, a development realized with the 1932 election of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the institution of the New Deal.

The passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act coincided with aggressive ACW organizing drives. Hillman's influence within the Roosevelt administration resulted in a men's clothing code in the NRA that was advantageous to the ACW; consequently, homeworkers (sweated labor) were reemployed in manufacturing establishments, wages rose significantly, child labor was prevented, and membership surged within the union. Increasingly, the union's membership included not only Jewish, but also Italian workers; among the former, sectarian political differences sometimes threatened to disrupt relations between the union's locals and its national officials, as in New York and Wisconsin in the late 1930s when Hillman prevented ACW locals from affiliating with state CIO councils heavily influenced by Communist Party members. There were some fascist tendencies among Italian workers, especially in New York and Boston. Although women were generally discouraged from pursuing leadership positions within the ACW, the organization's elaborate cultural program, including labor colleges, helped to hold together an increasingly ethnically diverse membership.

The ACW was a founding member of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). With support from the CIO, the union expanded its membership, taking in garment workers in the manufacture of nightclothes, work pants, and coveralls, as well as workers in laundry and drycleaning establishments. The ACW successfully negotiated its first nationwide contract in 1937, including a significant wage increase. At the same time, Hillman and ACW organizers embarked on an ambitious plan to organize southern textile workers into the Textile Workers Organizing Committee (TWOC), an undertaking that achieved only moderate success despite favorable rulings from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in North Carolina and elsewhere.

By the end of the 1930s, local ACW officials often found themselves at odds with national union officials, particularly in times of economic recession when local officials negotiated "local agreements," often calling for lower wages or "give-backs," to the national contract. On political issues, however, the ACW rank-and-file generally worked in concert with its leadership. Like Hillman and other leaders within the union, workers had flirted with third party movements, including New York's American Labor Party, in the mid-1930s. But most had returned to the Democratic Party by 1940, when Hillman turned the ACW annual convention into a vehicle for Roosevelt's reelection in a grand "labor unity" pageant. Members responded enthusiastically, voting in record numbers for Roosevelt and thus helping to further solidify the laborgovernment coalition that characterized much of the ACW's activities during the Depression years.



Argensinger, Jo Ann. Making the Amalgamated: Gender, Ethnicity, and Class in the Baltimore Clothing Industry, 1899–1939. 1999.

Bernstein, Irving. The Lean Years: A History of the American Worker, 1920–1933. 1960.

Fraser, Steven. Labor Will Rule: Sidney Hillman and the Rise of American Labor. 1991.

Seidman, Joel. The Needle Trades. 1942.

Zeiger, Robert. The CIO, 1935–1955. 1995.

Nancy Quam-Wickham