International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU)

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Two dramatic strikes in the pre-World War I period contributed to making the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) one of the largest and most successful unions in the nation at the end of the war. The famous 1909 "uprising of the 20,000" New York City shirtwaist makers and the 1910 cloakmakers' strike that established the "Protocol of Peace" gave the ILGWU a solid base and stable membership through the teens. The Protocol limited homework and inside subcontracting or sweating, and established a six-day, 54-hour work-week. During this period of strength the union also developed an extensive education program, health insurance, and unemployment insurance for its members.

Following World War I, conflict broke out between radicals and moderates within the ILGWU. The union was wracked with dissention and factionalism for the first half of the 1920s. In 1926, some 35,000 cloakmakers led by the Communist faction went on strike over the issue of job security. The strikers lost; manufacturers would not negotiate with the radicals, while the radicals were accused of refusing to support compromise agreements that would have ended the strike. As a result of the defeat, most of the Communists were driven out of the union by the end of the decade. By then the Depression was settling into the garment trades. By 1933 union membership had dropped to 40,000, down from almost 100,000 in 1920. The ILGWU lost over 3,300 members in 1930 alone.

Benjamin Schlesinger, a moderate, was elected ILGWU president in 1928 on a campaign to stabilize the union's finances and increase membership. David Dubinsky followed Schlesinger into the presidency with the latter's death in 1932. Meanwhile, shifts were also occurring within the industry. With the growth of the readymade dress industry in the 1920s, female dressmakers were replacing male cloakmakers. With the coming of the Depression employers began replacing male workers with female workers. The percentage of women workers in the garment trades increased from 64 percent in 1925 to 74 percent in 1935.

Confronted with a growing number of female workers in the garment trades, the ILGWU began aggressively organizing women, often taking advantage of campaigns initiated by the women themselves. The success of female dressmakers in their strike against the nonunion dress industry in Philadelphia spurred on organizing efforts, and membership began to climb after 1933. Even though many of the union's social programs had been cut back (financial difficulties even led to the suspension of the union newspaper Justice), the ILGWU continued to maintain its Education Department, the Union Health Center in New York, and its unemployment insurance services in Cleveland, Ohio.

Franklin D. Roosevelt's election and the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act offered new opportunities for the ILGWU. The National Recovery Administration (NRA) established codes for each industry and gave the workers the right to organize under Section 7a. Although workers in many of the heavily industrialized occupations found the NRA to be of limited value, garment workers were well positioned to take advantage of the new law. Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers union was on the NRA board to set codes, and Dubinsky served as a labor advisor to the NRA. Using Section 7a the ILGWU extended its organizing efforts. In the summer of 1933 the ILGWU called a general strike of dressmakers in the Northeast; 60,000 workers walked out. The union won the strike and enforced the new NRA code. By the end of 1934 union membership had climbed to over 200,000. The ILGWU also campaigned for shorter hours and a voice in setting job conditions. The union had fought against the piece rate system in the prewar years, but with the coming of the Depression, manufacturers began using hourly rates and firing slower workers. Piecework allowed for more widely distributed work and employers were less likely to lay off older and less efficient workers, but the concern was the rates. The union won a voice in setting standard piece rates. The national codes established a 35-hour work-week.

Although Dubinsky was loyal to the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and close to its president, William Green, most ILGWU officials supported industrial organizing. In 1935 Dubinsky served on the AFL Committee for Industrial Organizations (CIO). When the CIO unions were suspended from the AFL, Dubinsky resigned from the AFL executive committee and withdrew his union from the AFL. The ILGWU did not join the CIO, but remained independent until 1940, when it rejoined the AFL.

While the union retained its membership base and won a voice in setting rates and hours, it faced the continuing challenge of runaway shops. For many years, New York had been the center of the trade. For manufacturers the city offered a huge pool of capable labor, was close to the fashion industry, and had extensive networks of external economies. Yet New York was also the center of union activity and had extensive radical networks and reinforcing institutions. In the pre-Depression years, moving a shop entailed the necessity of locating new space and a willing and capable labor force. With the coming of the Depression manufacturers could move at significantly less cost. Empty factories begged for occupation, particularly in the depressed old textile centers, such as Fall River or New Bedford, Massachusetts. These were places with an abundance of unemployed women familiar with industrial work and piece work, and city leaders were more than willing to encourage the movement of manufacturers into their empty textile mills. Garments were a low capital-intensive industry. Manufacturers could load bolts of cloth and sewing machines in trucks and drive into New England, unload them into an abandoned textile mill, hire workers as learners, and begin work. The union tried to follow these plants but it was a difficult and frustrating task at best. The ILGWU approached the problem of runaway shops with a dual campaign of publicizing the union label and the urging of the passage of a minimum wage. The industry was also expanding on the West Coast. In the 1920s Jewish and Italian women made up the heart of the West Coast garment workers, but with the coming of the Depression, employers turned more and more to the larger pool of Hispanic and Asian women who were desperate to find work at any wage. Although the ILGWU maintained a nondiscrimination policy, the new, more conservative, leadership that had taken over following the purge of radicals in the late 1920s held tight control over the union. This discouraged more aggressive organizing of minority women.



Leeder, Elaine J. The Gentle General: Rose Pesotta, Anarchist and Labor Organizer. 1993.

Levine, Louis. The Women's Garment Workers: A History of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. 1924.

McCreesh, Carolyn D. Women in the Campaign to Organize Garment Workers, 1880–1917. 1985.

Stein, Leon. Out of the Sweatshop: The Struggle for Industrial Democracy. 1977.

John T. Cumbler

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International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU)

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International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU)