Chaikin, Sol (Chick)

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Chaikin, Sol (Chick)

(b. 9 January 1918 in New York City; d. 1 April 1991 in New York City), apparel industry labor leader.

Chaikin, who adopted and preferred the name Chick (spelled, at his insistence, without quotation marks) after the summers spent on his uncle’s chicken farm, was the son of Sam Chaikin and Beckie Schechtman. He was the only one of three siblings to live beyond childhood. His parents were Russian Jewish immigrants who came to the United States in 1910 to escape the anti-Semitism of turn-of-the-century Russia. They settled in New York City, both finding work in Manhattan’s then-thriving garment industry, Sam as a cloak maker, Beckie as a dressmaker. His parents soon became members of the fledgling International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), an allegiance they maintained for the rest of their lives.

In the 1930s and 1940s organized labor was a way of life for many garment workers, Chaikin’s parents included, and their influence directed his life and his choice of career. Graduating from high school in 1934 at the age of sixteen, he received a B.A. degree from the City College of New York in 1938 and a law degree from Brooklyn Law School in 1940.

Choosing the life of a union organizer over the practice of law, Chaikin went to work with the ILGWU in Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1940. On 31 August 1940 he married a schoolteacher named Rosalind Bryon. They had four children. His rapid rise within the union, which began with his appointment as business agent for the union’s Boston local, was interrupted by his enlistment in 1943 in the Army Air Forces. He earned several battle stars in combat in the South Pacific and the China-Burma-India theater. Discharged in 1946, he returned to the ILGWU as the manager of the Springfield, Massachusetts, local and in 1948 was elevated to manager of the union’s Western Massachusetts District. In 1955 he became director of its Lower Southwest Region and in 1959 was appointed deputy director of the Union’s Northeast Department, which covered all of New England and Pennsylvania. Elected a vice president of the union in 1965, he became secretary-treasurer in 1973. In 1975, when incumbent president Louis Stulberg resigned for reasons of poor health, the union’s executive board elected Chaikin president of the ILGWU. The election was ratified by the full membership in 1977. Chaikin served for nine years, winning three successive terms, and retired from the presidency in 1986.

Chaikin’s ascendance to the presidency occurred at a time of great difficulty for the union. Garment manufacturers in vast numbers were relocating their plants from New York and Pennsylvania to the low-wage states of the South and Southwest, where local right-to-work laws discouraged union membership. In addition, many manufacturers were opening factories in South America and as far away as Southeast Asia, where labor costs were a mere fraction of the cost of labor in the United States. As jobs disappeared, first from the relatively union-friendly northern states and then from the country as a whole, the union’s membership declined dramatically. Chaikin’s herculean efforts to organize in the South and the Southwest failed to stanch the hemorrhaging of the union’s membership.

The approach Chaikin took to minimizing the effects of the industry’s flight to developing countries was unabashedly protectionist in nature. He argued that the government should impose high tariffs on garments imported into the country in order to force their retail price upward to a level that would make them competitive with American-made garments, thus preserving union jobs. Although he assiduously lobbied the government to this end, he was never able to convince the president or Congress that the remedy he sought was tenable. As a consequence, the union’s membership at the time he relinquished the presidency in 1986 stood at 220,000—approximately half its number when he was first elected in 1975.

After retiring from the union’s presidency, Chaikin, an acknowledged expert on international trade, represented the ILGWU at labor and economic conferences around the world. He was also extensively involved, nationally and internationally, in a wide range of educational, social, and political organizations and coalitions. Chick Chaikin died of heart failure in New York City on 1 April 1991 at the age of seventy-three.

Chaikin’s greatest and most important contribution to the union was his successful effort to revamp the system by which it was administered. At first the ILGWU’s membership was largely composed of Jewish and Italian women, reflecting the ethnicity of the workers employed in the garment industry, which was then largely located in New York City. As many of these jobs moved into Pennsylvania, women of other ethnicities flocked to work in the garment plants. The membership was still largely white, but as manufacturers increasingly moved their work south, the workforce became heavily black and Hispanic. The union’s leadership, however, remained in the hands of now aging officers who had first been elected in the organization’s infancy, when the ethnicity of its membership was considerably different. Further, although the union’s membership was almost exclusively female, virtually all of its officials were male. The result was that the rank and file of the union had become increasingly and perilously disaffected from its leadership. Reversing this circumstance by successfully supporting the election of women and minorities to key positions, Chaikin paved the way for the historic merger of the ILGWU with the country’s other major apparel workers union, the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union (ACTWU), in February of 1995. Although UNITE (Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Workers), with its combined membership, did not solve the economic problems endemic in the industry, it gave organized garment workers considerably more power than they had enjoyed for many years.

Chaikin’s personal papers are archived with the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Workers (UNITE) in New York City. He is the author of A Labor Viewpoint: Another Opinion (1980). His widow, Rosalind Bryon Chaikin, is the author of To My Memory Sing: A Memoir Based on Letters and Poems from Sol Chick Chaikin, an American Soldier in China-Burma-India During World War II (1997). Current Biography Yearbook 1979 contains a short biography of Chaikin to that date. An obituary is in the New York Times (3 Apr. 1991).

Jack Handler