David Dubinsky

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David Dubinsky

David Dubinsky (1892-1982) was an influential American trade union official. His leadership of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union demonstrated his ability to combine the more mundane attributes of the labor movement with the broader social vision of a reformer.

Together with such men as John L. Lewis, Sidney Hillman, and Philip Murray, David Dubinsky built the American labor movement as it now functions. During the Great Depression and the New Deal of the 1930s, through the creation of industrial unions (as opposed to craft unions) in the mass-production industries, these leaders brought trade unionism into a position of power whereby labor influenced big business and national politics.

Dubinsky (originally Dobnievski) was born in Brest-Litovsk in Russian Poland on Feb. 22, 1892, the youngest of six children in a poor Jewish family. His father moved the family to Lodz, where he operated a bakery. At the age of 11, David went to work for his father. By 14 he was a master baker and a member of the Bakers' Union, an affiliate of the Polish Bund, a revolutionary organization of Jewish workers.

Membership in the Bund led to Dubinsky's arrest in 1907 during a wave of Czarist repression following the abortive 1905 Russian Revolution. After a short jail term he returned to union activity, leading a strike by bakers in Lodz, which resulted in another arrest and expulsion to Brest-Litovsk. Dubinsky, however, returned illegally to Lodz and to union affairs, only to be arrested in 1908 and this time sentenced to exile in Siberia.

He was too young to be sent to Siberia, so Dubinsky was jailed in Lodz for a year and a half, until he was old enough to be transported there. On the way to Siberia he escaped and, convinced he had no future within the Russian Empire, decided to emigrate to the New World. In 1911 Dubinsky arrived in the United States.

Within two weeks Dubinsky took out his first papers, joined the Socialist party, and enrolled in night school. He soon became a garment cutter (the most skilled craft in the garment industry) and a member of Local 10, International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU), the union which represented the trade's skilled-labor "aristocrats." At first Dubinsky devoted his time to Socialist party activities and to the Cooperative movement, but after his marriage to Emma Goldberg in 1914 he began to concentrate upon his craft and to take more interest in local union affairs.

Dubinsky spoke for the more recent immigrants in the union, whose increasing numbers assisted his rise to union power. In 1918 he was elected to Local 10's executive board and a year later was vice-president. Elected president in 1920, the following year Dubinsky also became general manager, a full-time, well-paid position that allowed him to leave the cutter's bench. By 1924 he added to his offices the secretary-treasurership of the local, thus becoming the most powerful figure within the New York locals that dominated the ILGWU.

A born pragmatist whose Socialist dreams had died, and eager to rise in the union hierarchy, Dubinsky joined the anti-Communist faction of the ILGWU during the 1920s in the internal war that almost tore the organization apart. With the aid of Dubinsky's powerful Local 10, the anti-Communists triumphed, but the union was wrecked and nearly bankrupt.

A member of the ILGWU's general executive board since 1923, Dubinsky was elected secretary-treasurer in 1929, allowing him to run the union since its president was desperately sick. In 1932 the president died, and Dubinsky replaced him, still retaining his secretary-treasurer's office. Until 1959 he held both positions.

Franklin Roosevelt's election to the U.S. presidency in 1932 offered Dubinsky true opportunity. Taking advantage of New Deal labor legislation, Dubinsky had increased his union's membership to over 200,000 by the end of the next year.

Elected to the American Federation of Labor (AFL) executive council in 1934, Dubinsky supported the industrial unionists' effort to organize mass-production workers. When the AFL refused its assistance, Dubinsky in 1936 resigned from the executive council. He assisted in forming the Committee on Industrial Organization (CIO). Always a firm believer in labor unity, however, when the CIO became a permanent, second national labor federation in 1938, Dubinsky took the ILGWU out. He returned his union to the AFL in 1940 and 5 years later was reelected to the AFL executive council.

During the 1930s Dubinsky broke with socialism, becoming a fervent supporter of Roosevelt's New Deal. He declared, "Trade unionism needs capitalism like a fish needs water." Because New York City's Jewish workers looked with suspicion upon the local Democratic machine, Dubinsky helped create the American Labor party to capture former Socialist voters for the New Deal. When he thought that Communists had taken over the American Labor party, he helped found the Liberal party. By the mid-1940s he was one of the nationally respected leaders of the pro-New Deal, rabidly anti-Communist wing of the American labor movement. In 1947 he helped found Americans for Democratic Action, and independent political organization.

At his retirement from union office in March 1966, Dubinsky left a thriving labor organization, though it was no longer committed to the establishment of a cooperative society. Dubinsky's heritage to the labor movement was a belief in militant economic action, a trust in reform politics, and a faith in the justice of a socially conscious capitalism.

Dubinsky died on September 17, 1982, in Manhattan after a lengthy illness. He was 90 years old. According to the New York Times, "Dubinsky's most notable achievement was bringing in a standard 35-hour week to the sweatshop industry that was in a constant state of chaos."

Further Reading

The World of David Dubinsky (1957) is a complete but uncritical biography by Max D. Danish, who worked for Dubinsky. Another glowing tribute to Dubinsky is the general history of the ILGWU and the needle trades by Benjamin Stolberg, Tailor's Progress: The Story of a Famous Union and the Men Who Made It (1944). Two books by Irving Bernstein offer the most objective account of Dubinsky's union activities in the 1920s and 1930s: The Lean Years: A History of the American Worker, 1920-1933 (1960) and Turbulent Years: A History of the American Worker, 1933-1941 (1969). A short but excellent general introduction to the garment industry and its unions is Joel Seidman, The Needle Trades (1942). Dubinsky's obituary appeared in the September 18, 1982 edition of the New York Times.

Dubinsky, David

views updated Jun 11 2018


DUBINSKY, DAVID (1892–1982), U.S. labor leader. Born in Brest-Litovsk, Belorussia, Dubinsky was brought up in the Polish city of Lodz, where he became a master baker and secretary of the militant Lodz Bakers Union organized by the *Bund. He was arrested and imprisoned for organizing strikes against his father's bakery, and was exiled to Siberia in 1909 for making inflammatory speeches. He managed to escape en route, however, and at the end of 1910 immigrated to the United States. He joined his elder brother in New York and obtained work through the International Ladies Garment Workers' Union (ilgwu) becoming an apprentice in Cutters' Local 10. He devoted more of his time to the Socialist party than to trade union affairs until larger numbers of East European Socialist Jews entered Local 10, but in 1918 he was elected to its executive board. In 1921 he was chosen president of the Cutters' Local. Dubinsky also rose rapidly in the ilgwu, where he joined the anti-Communist majority. He was elected to its general executive board in 1923. In 1928 he played a leading part in bringing back Benjamin *Schlesinger as a compromise candidate for president to avoid a split in the union, and in the following year was himself elected secretary-treasurer. On Schlesinger's death in 1932 he became president, a position he held until 1966.

During the 1930s Dubinsky dominated the ilgwu and was a powerful force in the American labor movement. He favored cooperation with the employers in rationalizing the complex structure of the garment industry and made his union a symbol of progressive unionism. In 1934 he was elected a vice president of the afl. Almost immediately he became embroiled in the controversy between the proponents of industrial unionism and the supporters of the old-style craft union. He played a leading part in the cio which he helped to found in 1935, his union being the second largest in the country. In 1936 he resigned his vice-presidency of the afl in protest against their support of the craft unions against the industrial unions, and persuaded the ilgwu to give their backing to the latter. For two years from 1938 the ilgwu was isolated from the American labor movement, but in 1940 Dubinsky brought it back into the afl. In his capacity as president of the ilgwu for more than 30 years, he transformed the union from a struggling entity to one with assets in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Under his guidance, the union took on issues such as the provision of health insurance, severance pay, retirement benefits, and a 35-hour workweek. He also worked to abolish the sweatshops that were prevalent in the industry.

An influential figure in United States politics, Dubinsky refused to endorse Tammany Hall, New York's political machine, and supported Franklin D. *Roosevelt for president in 1932 and 1936. To this end he helped to create the American Labor Party (alp) in 1936. In 1944, when Communists began to dominate the alp, he helped to form the Liberal Party. After World War ii Dubinsky was one of the founders of the anti-Communist International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. In 1945 he served once again as a vice president and member of the executive council of the afl, even after it merged with the cio in 1955. Due largely to his efforts to eliminate corrupt union leaders, the afl-cio adopted the anti-racket codes in 1957.

In 1969 U.S. President Lyndon Johnson awarded Dubinsky the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which cited him as "a national leader of foresight and compassion. He has advanced the cause of the workingman in America – and the broader cause of social justice in the world, with unfailing skill and uncommon distinction." In 1993 Dubinsky was inducted into the Labor Hall of Fame.

As a self-styled "Jewish worker," Dubinsky was concerned with the special problems facing the Jewish community as a consequence of events in Germany and World War ii. He was a member of the executive council of the Jewish Labor Committee founded in 1933, engaged in relief efforts on behalf of refugees, and became a staunch supporter of Israel and in particular of the *Histadrut, Israel's General Federation of Labor. A hospital in Beersheba, financed by his union, carries his name. Dubinsky wrote David Dubinsky: A Life with Labor (1977).


M.D. Danish, The World of David Dubinsky (1957); J. Dewey, David Dubinsky, a Pictorial Biography (1951); C.A. Madison, American Labor Leaders (1962), 199–231; R. Cook, Leaders of Labor (1966), 102–12.

[Melvyn Dubofsky /

Ruth Beloff (2nd ed.)]

Dubinsky, David

views updated Jun 27 2018


The life of the labor leader and political activist David Dubinsky (February 22, 1892–September 17, 1982) was governed by three great passions: trade unionism, social reform, and anticommunism. Raised as the youngest son of a Jewish baker in Lodz in Russian Poland, Dubinsky started his labor activism early. After a rudimentary secular Zionist education, he went to work for his father at the age of eleven and led his first strike at fifteen. Dubinsky also joined the Jewish Bund, a socialist organization banned by czarist authorities. Imprisoned and later exiled to Siberia at eighteen, he escaped. Recognizing that he was a hunted man, Dubinsky left Poland, arriving in New York on New Year's Day, 1911.

Dubinsky became a U.S. citizen and joined the Socialist Party and garment cutters' Local 10 of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU). He embraced the cutters' craft culture, moderate socialism, and practical trade unionism. Elected president of his local in 1921, he played a vital role in the bitter "civil war" between Communists and Socialists that decimated New York's garment unions during the 1920s. Several factors led to the ILGWU's demise, but Dubinsky blamed an ill-fated 1926 strike and supported the expulsion of the Communists. ILGWU membership fell from a high of 120,000 in the early 1920s to only 40,000 in early 1933 shortly after Dubinsky's ascent to the presidency. His tenure became closely entwined with Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. Taking advantage of the National Recovery Administration's nominal recognition of collective bargaining rights, Dubinsky launched organizing drives in sixty cities, as well as a series of successful strikes. By May 1934 membership in the ILGWU had jumped to more than 400,000, and Dubinsky emerged as a major figure in New Deal labor circles. Placing its new strength behind the NRA code authority, the ILGWU established a thirty-five hour work week, substantially raised wages, and transformed conditions in its industry. In the process, it provided a model for the industrial union explosion of the late 1930s.

Convinced that the labor movement's future lay in the development of giant industrial unions, in late 1935 Dubinsky formed the Committee for Industrial Organization with Sidney Hillman, John L. Lewis, and other American Federation of Labor (AFL) leaders to push the AFL into organizing basic industry. Although he supported organizing drives throughout 1936 and 1937 and recognized the need to revitalize the labor movement, Dubinsky opposed the formation of the CIO as a separate labor federation in November 1938, fearing dual unionism and Communist Party influence in the new group. He led his union back into the AFL in 1940 and rejoined the Federation's executive board in 1945. Dubinsky retired from the ILGWU presidency in 1966.

Dubinsky's political life was shaped both by his strong commitment to social justice and his staunch anti-Communism. He helped to form the American Labor Party in 1936 but eventually renounced it, alleging Communist influence. He cofounded the New York Liberal Party, Americans for Democratic Action, and the International Confederation of Trade Unions, all bastions of Cold War liberal anti-Communism. Throughout, he remained an avid supporter of Roosevelt and later Democratic presidents.



Bernstein, Irving. The Turbulent Years: A History of the American Worker, 1933–1941. 1969.

Danish, Max. The World of David Dubinsky. 1957.

"David Dubinsky, the I.L.G.W.U., and the American Labor Movement: Essays in Honor of David Dubinsky." Labor History 9 (1968), special supplement.

Dubinsky, David, and A. H. Raskin. David Dubinsky: A Life with Labor. 1977.

James R. Barrett

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