Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America
AMALGAMATED CLOTHING WORKERS OF AMERICA
AMALGAMATED CLOTHING WORKERS OF AMERICA. The Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA) was founded in 1914 in revolt against the established men's clothing workers union. It went on to become one of the most important and powerful industrial unions in American history. The ACWA arose out of a need among workers in the men's clothing trade for an organization that would represent every worker in the industry, not just the minority of skilled craftsmen, whose numbers were decreasing as clothing production became increasingly segmented and de-skilled in the late nineteenth century.
The first successful union of men's clothing workers was the United Garment Workers (UGW), founded in 1891 by immigrant workers who chose native-born craftsmen to head the union. Within a couple of decades, this effort at acceptability backfired as the UGW's leadership became increasingly distant from the union's immigrant majority. During two of the most significant clothing workers' strikes—in New York City during 1910 and Chicago in 1911—the UGW leaders refused to support the striking workers.
The tension between the native-born overalls makers who dominated the UGW leadership and the foreign-born majority reached its height at the 1914 national convention in Nashville, Tennessee. The urban immigrant delegates who made it there were denied seating on trumped-up charges of unpaid dues. So those delegates bolted the convention and at a nearby hotel convened themselves as the "true" United Garment Workers. After the new organization was forced to surrender its claim to the UGW name by court order, the new union adopted the name Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America at a subsequent convention. Sidney Hillman, a Chicago clothing worker, became the ACWA's first president. Although denied recognition by the American Federation of Labor (AFL), its numbers quickly swelled to 177,000 clothing workers by 1920.
During World War I, the ACWA maintained and even improved wages, hours, and working conditions. By 1917, it had established the forty-eight hour week in the nation's two biggest centers of clothing manufacturing—New York City and Chicago. During the 1920s, however, the union had to struggle to stay alive in the face of depression and red scare without and organized crime infiltration and racketeering within. During the Great Depression of the 1930s the ACWA was finally admitted into the AFL, but because of continuing differences within the federation over whether to organize by industry or craft, the ACWA joined the new Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) (later the Congress of Industrial Organizations) as a charter member in 1935. The ACWA also shored up its political respectability when Hillman, as president of the ACWA, served on the advisory board of the National Recovery Administration (NRA) during its brief existence from 1933 to 1935. As the ACWA grew in numbers between the 1920s and the 1950s, it also expanded its scope, pioneering social welfare programs for its members that included health insurance, a health center, banks, and even a housing cooperative. As a result of plant closings and declining memberships, in 1976 the ACWA merged with the Textile Workers Union of America (TWUA) to form the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU). Then, in 1995, ACTWU merged with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) to form the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE!).
Fraser, Stephen. Labor Will Rule: Sidney Hillman and the Rise of American Labor. New York: The Free Press, 1991.
Strong, Earl D. The Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. Grinnell, Ia.: Herald-Register Publishing Co., 1940.
"UNITE! History." Available from http://www.uniteunion.org.