Union Label Movement

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Union Label Movement

United States 1874


The union label movement began in 1874. The first union label was white, to distinguish cigars made by white union men from those produced by Chinese immigrants. From these ignoble beginnings, the union label became one of several weapons in efforts to end sweatshops and child labor and to improve the working conditions of laborers in the United States. The union label movement continued in the twenty-first century with similar aims: to end sweatshops, slavery, and child labor, conditions that still existed globally.


  • 1854: Republican Party is formed by opponents of slavery in Michigan.
  • 1859: American abolitionist John Brown leads a raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. His capture and hanging in December heighten the animosities that will spark the Civil War sixteen months later.
  • 1864: General William Tecumseh Sherman conducts his Atlanta campaign and his "march to the sea."
  • 1867: Establishment of the Dominion of Canada.
  • 1870: Beginning of Franco-Prussian War. German troops sweep over France, Napoleon III is dethroned, and France's Second Empire gives way to the Third Republic.
  • 1872: The Crédit Mobilier affair, in which several officials in the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant are accused of receiving stock in exchange for favors, is the first of many scandals that are to plague Grant's second term.
  • 1874: As farm wages in Britain plummet, agricultural workers go on strike.
  • 1874: Discovery of gold in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
  • 1874: Norwegian physician Arrnauer Gerhard Henrik Hansen discovers the bacillus that causes leprosy. This marks the major turning point in the history of an ailment (now known properly as Hansen's disease) that afflicted humans for thousands of years and was often regarded as evidence of divine judgment.
  • 1876: General George Armstrong Custer and 264 soldiers are killed by the Sioux at the Little Big Horn River.
  • 1882: The Chinese Exclusion Act, a treaty between the United States and China, provides for restrictions on immigration of Chinese workers.
  • 1884: Chicago's Home Life Insurance Building, designed by William LeBaron Jenney, becomes the world's first skyscraper.

Event and Its Context

The radio and television jingle, "Look for the Union Label," created by Paula Green for the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) in 1975, has been a familiar musical reminder to many Americans to buy union-made goods. Labels differentiate union-made from non-union-made products, enabling consumers to decide by whom and under what conditions the goods and services they purchase are produced. The union label allows consumers to lend material support to labor's fight to improve working conditions and to support businesses that engage in fair labor practices.

The union label movement is an outgrowth of a broader union labor movement. In the 1800s workers organized in trade unions to improve their terms of employment through collective bargaining and legislation. During the Progressive Era (1890s-1920s), the labor movement expanded precipitously in response to the deteriorating conditions of many American workers as immigrant-employing sweatshops, fatal disasters, and the use of low-wage child and convict slave labor rapidly increased.

The union label movement, which began in the 1870s, expanded the labor movement's arsenal of tools and its self-conception of workers. It broadened the meaning of the union laborer to include union consumer. According to the Union Label Advocate, "You as the consumer are the employer of labor, and if you have to work for wages see to it that your hard earned money is not expended to support employers who do not recognize any organization of the men they employ." If workers successfully organized the collective purchasing power of union members and supporters, a powerful prounion message would be sent to businesses. In effect, to "look for the union label" was viewed as an act of solidarity with workers that rewarded union-friendly businesses while maintaining a "peaceful boycott" against those selling goods and services produced by workers who were unprotected by the collective bargaining process.

Early Labels: 1874-1900

In 1874 union cigar makers in San Francisco pasted white "union made" labels on cigar boxes to indicate that they had been made by white men. Union members did this to protect white workers from competition from Chinese immigrant cigar makers, whose produce was driving down prices and wages. The San Francisco union claimed that Chinese immigrant-produced cigars were made by sickly workers who labored in unsanitary conditions and who were satisfied with wages that were below the "American standard." Appealing to 1870s Pacific Coast anti-Chinese public sentiment, cigar makers promoted their white label as a way that consumers could help white working men maintain living wages in decent shops and drive their nonwhite competitors back to China. The positive public response to this message spurred sales of cigars and thus smoothed businesses' acceptance of the union label. In 1875 St. Louis cigar makers adopted the San Francisco makers' practice but with a red label to symbolize solidarity.

At the 1880 International Cigar Makers' annual meeting, attendees raised concerns about competition from immigrant workers, prison labor, and tenement sweatshops. Prompted by the California cigar makers' success and unable to decide between white and red, the delegates voted to adopt a blue union label. The union agreed to deliver labels to any requesting manufacturer who operated in compliance with union hour and wage rules and to set aside funds to promote sales of union-made cigars.

At their national convention in 1885, a second union, United Hatters of North America, established an identifying label for their men's hats. In 1891 the International Typographical Union began to use a union label or "bug." The union bug met with early success. By 1897, 40 city councils had passed ordinances requiring union labels on all municipal printing. By the turn of the century, numerous unions representing garment workers to iron molders all were using union labels. The Barbers' Union issued union shop cards to barbers who employed union members.

White labels frequently were used to prey on the health fears of American consumers. White indicated the "sanitary conditions" under which an item was produced. If appeals to ethics or solidarity failed to motivate consumers to check labels, fears of tuberculosis succeeded. In the 1890s garment factories in Massachusetts had to be licensed by the board of health. If a garment was not factory-made, it was required to bear a "tenement made" tag.

The union label was also used as an organizing tool. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) supported the use of identifying labels as emblems of unionism. Unions promised to promote the products of manufacturers and business that permitted union labeling. Some businesses allowed use of labels as requested by unionized employees in exchange for promotion. Unions convinced other employers of the promotional value of labels. These employers received labels conditional on organizing current employees and committing to subsequent union hiring. Several unions (for example, the Cigar Makers, the Boot and Shoe Workers) preferred to use labeling agreements as a "peaceful" method of organizing that avoided employer-employee conflict.

The union label movement was initially so successful that fraudulent use or imitation of union label symbols became an immediate problem. By 1895, 25 states had enacted criminal and civil laws to protect union labels from counterfeit or allowed labels to be registered as trademarks. Despite these efforts however, conditions under which union labels could be used went unmonitored and were loosely enforced.

Progressive Era: Label Promotion

In the Progressive Era, numerous social clubs and improvement societies supported labor's agenda by sponsoring strike benefits, labor legislation, and regular lectures and discussions. One such organization, the Social Reform Club of New York, founded in 1894, promoted the union label movement among middle-and upper-class purchasers, characterizing it as a way to help the working classes help themselves.

Labor leaders understood that predominantly male union members made few household purchases. Consequently, women became the focus of union label purchasing promotion. In 1909 the AFL created its Union Label and Service Trades Department, which sponsored formation of local union label leagues to promote label shopping. In 1910 Pauline Newman, an ILGWU label promoter, recommended going beyond male union members and promoting union labels to socially minded women. After making her case in newspapers, Newman was invited to promote label purchasing to audiences in society clubs, women's clubs, and churches.

In tandem with the union label, another label movement with similar aims formed. In 1899 Florence Kelley helped to establish the National Consumer's League (NCL) to secure maximum hours, minimum wages, and improved working conditions for women and children. The NCL introduced a "white label" that could only be used by employers that met their standards. The NCL and its local chapters asked consumers to boycott goods not bearing its label of approval.

Union Labels in the Twentieth Century

Despite efforts to educate consumers about buying union-made products, the label movement experienced mixed results. Even label advocates themselves did not always adhere to the use of labeled products. For example, Alice Dodge Wolfson, a delegate from Stenographers, Bookkeepers, Accountants, and Office Employee's Union Local 14965 attended a 1935 AFL meeting. At the end of a speech by I. M. Ornburn, head of the Union Label and Service Trades Department, admonishing all to buy union-label products, Wolfson stood up and demanded to know why there was no Stenographer's Union label on the copies of his speech distributed to the audience.

Between the Great Depression and the 1970s, organized labor's battle for better working conditions yielded a series of victories in the U.S. Congress. In 1933 the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) gave organized labor an ongoing role in setting legally enforceable labor standards on an industry-by-industry basis. It also gave workers the right to organize and to bargain collectively with employers. Employers who satisfied NIRA conditions were permitted to display the Blue Eagle Label, a universal label indicating conformity to fair labor practices. However, the U.S. Supreme Court in Schechter Poultry v. United States (1935) struck down the NIRA as unconstitutional.

Congress responded to the Schechter Poultry decision by enacting a series of new statutes, each targeted at improving the welfare of laborers. The Wagner Act (1935) established the rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively and created the National Labor Relations Board. The Fair Labor Standard Act (FLSA, 1938) instituted national minimum wages and maximum hours and ended the lawful use of child labor. The Occupational Safety and Health Act (1970) sought to ensure workplace safety. As organized labor focused its efforts during this period on the legislative arena, it did not expend as much effort as in the past on promoting consumer awareness of union labels.

In the 1970s, however, interest in union labels was revived when the onset of globalization increased the level of competition between American-made goods and those made in foreign sweatshops by nonunion labor. In this new context, union labels again came to symbolize the American labor movement's struggle to maintain fair labor standards in global labor and product markets. At the same time, globalization threatened to reverse many of the gains achieved by organized labor during the twentieth century. The ability to outsource overseas dramatically increased industry's bargaining power. As manufacturers subcontracted or moved their operations overseas, union organizers were less likely to follow as they did after World War II, when manufacturers relocated from the organized North to the unorganized South. Further, federal labor laws such as the Wagner Act and the FSLA did not follow American manufacturers overseas. Thus, American manufacturers often were able to lower their production costs by relying on sweatshop conditions and child labor in countries with lax labor laws.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, organized labor's loss of both bargaining power and legislative protection had the potential to reinvigorate the union label movement. Although manufacturers in the global economy were often able to evade both U.S. laborers and U.S. laws, they could not operate profitably without appealing to the vast U.S. markets for their products. Thus, U.S. consumers constituted a key point through which organized labor could continue to exert pressure on manufacturers. If large numbers of U.S. consumers could be persuaded to look for the union label before purchasing goods, then manufacturers would gain an incentive to re-engage in collective bargaining with labor unions so as to satisfy those consumers. Some steps were taken in this direction. The 1980s and 1990s, for instance, saw the formation of numerous antisweatshop organizations such as Global Exchange, United Students Against Sweatshops, National Labor Committee, and Workers Right Consortium.

Although the perceived meaning of union labels varied, one tenet of the movement remained consistent: by buying union, consumers could help their fellow workers maintain decent jobs with fair wages. In the twenty-first century, these goals became international.

Key Players

Kelley, Florence (1859-1932): Philadelphia-born daughter of U.S Congressman William D. Kelley. She received a law degree from Northwestern University and joined reformers at Chicago's Hull House. She was a founder of the National Consumer League.

Newman, Pauline (circa 1890-1986): Born in Lithuania and came to the United States in 1901. Newman was employed by New York's Triangle Shirtwaist Factory as a child. By 1910 she was an organizer, activist, and ILGWU union label promoter.

See also: American Federation of Labor; Wagner Act



Brooks, John Graham. "The Trade Union Label." In Making of America, edited by Robert La Follette. Chicago: John D. Morris and Company, 1905.

Glickman, Lawrence B. A Living Wage: American Workers and the Making of Consumer Society. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997.

Marot, Helen. American Labor Unions. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1914.

Mitchell, John. Organized Labor: Its Problems, Purposes and Ideals and the Present and Future of American Wage Earners. Philadelphia: American Book and Bible House, 1903.

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


Kelley, M. E. J. "Union Label." North American Review 165 (July 1897).

The Union Label Advocate (March 1920).

Additional Resources


Union Services Directory [cited 7 October 2002].<www.union-label.com/directory.htm>

. Wolfson, Alice Dodge/Charlie Potter, and Beth Friend."Right After That They Walked Out": Alice Wolfson recalls the Origins of the CIO. Interview by the Oral History of the American Left, Tamiment Library, NYU for the public radio program, Grandma Was an Activist. History Matters Web site [cited 8 October 2002]. http:// historymatters.gmu.edu/d/130/ .

—Linda Dynan

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Union Label Movement

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Union Label Movement