International Ladies Garment Workers Union

views updated May 11 2018

International Ladies Garment Workers Union

United States 1900


The International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) was one of the most radical and colorful labor organizations in the early decades of the twentieth century. Although the union embraced workers from a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds, a decisive element in its composition was the wave of eastern European Jewish immigrants who flooded into the United States from the 1880s through the 1920s. Especially important in the union's founding and evolution were dedicated socialists and anarchists who articulated the vision of a better world to be achieved through the collective struggle of workers against their own oppressors. The ILGWU embraced all workers—regardless of specific occupation or skill level—in the women's garment industry and was one of the few unions in the American Federation of Labor of that time to be organized on an industrial rather than craft basis.


  • 1880: The completed Cologne Cathedral, begun 634 years earlier. With twin spires 515 feet (157 m) high, is the tallest structure in the world, and will remain so until 1889, when it is surpassed by the Eiffel Tower. (The previous record for the world's tallest structure lasted much longer—for about 4,430 years following the building of Cheops's Great Pyramid in c. 2550 B.C.)
  • 1885: Sudanese capital of Khartoum falls to forces under the Mahdi Mohammed Ahmed, whose forces massacre British General Charles "Chinese" Gordon and his garrison just before a British relief expedition reaches the city.
  • 1890: U.S. Congress passes the Sherman Antitrust Act, which in the years that follow will be used to break up large monopolies.
  • 1893: Wall Street stock prices plummet on 5 May, precipitating a market collapse on 27 June. In the wake of this debacle, some 600 banks and 15,000 other businesses fail. The nationwide depression will last for four more years.
  • 1898: United States defeats Spain in the three-month Spanish-American War. As a result, Cuba gains it independence, and the United States purchases Puerto Rico and the Philippines from Spain for $20 million.
  • 1900: China's Boxer Rebellion, which began in the preceding year with attacks on foreigners and Christians, reaches its height. An international contingent of more than 2,000 men arrives to restore order, but only after several tens of thousands have died.
  • 1900: The Commonwealth of Australia is established.
  • 1900: The first zeppelin is test-flown.
  • 1900: Sigmund Freud publishes The Interpretation of Dreams.
  • 1900: German physicist Max Planck develops Planck's constant, a cornerstone of quantum theory.
  • 1903: Henry Ford establishes the Ford Motor Company.
  • 1907: U.S. markets experience a financial panic.
  • 1910: Neon lighting is introduced.

Event and Its Context

In the final years of the nineteenth century, a variety of developments in the women's clothing industry culminated in the emergence of a widely perceived need for a unified organization of workers in that industry. There were almost 84,000 workers in women's garment shops in 32 states. There was a decades-long accumulation of political and trade union experience among many of these workers and a proliferation of local unions with strong organization, especially among many of the cloakmakers.

The United Brotherhood of Cloakmakers' Union No. 1 of New York and Vicinity issued a call on 11 March 1900 for a national convention of garment workers to take place in New York City on 3 June 1900. The call asserted that "to improve our condition, we must have not only local unions, but also a well-organized national union for all America."

Social, Economic, and Political Ferment

The relative moderation in the wording of the cloakmakers' call gives little sense of the realities leading up to it. These included sweeping changes in U.S. society that had been generated by rapid industrialization in the decades following the Civil War, the dramatic process of decomposition and recomposition within the U.S. working class and its organizations, and the turbulence and ferment among garment workers in particular.

Between 1860 and 1880 the number of shops in the women's clothing industry rose from 188 to 562, the value of the products produced increased from $7 million to $32 million, and the number of workers increased from about 5,700 to more than 25,000. The workforce was largely immigrant, shifting increasingly after 1880 from Irish and German to eastern European Jewish, as well as Italian, Bohemian, Polish, Russian, Syrian, and others. Female participation in the workforce was high (26,000 women as opposed to 13,000 men in 1890), though increasing numbers of men found employment in this industry. "And the children are called in from play to drive and drudge beside their elders," wrote one observer from this period. "The load falls upon the ones least able to bear it—upon the backs of the little children at the base of the labor pyramid."

Much of the work in this period was done in the home, with contractors providing raw materials and gathering finished products from those laboring in small, poorly lit, poorly ventilated apartments in the tenement buildings of urban slums. Increasingly, however, the work was done in small garment shops. Ambitious entrepreneurs (often immigrants themselves) signed contracts with larger manufacturers to produce clothing goods. Business startup required a relatively small outlay of capital ($50 would be sufficient), and the source of cheap labor provided was the immigrants who were flooding into the cities. Sewing machines were cheap and could be bought on the installment plan or even rented, and they were small enough to be installed easily in the room of a tenement house. The foot-power of the immigrant sewers ran the machines, and the workers could be secured at makeshift labor exchanges such as New York City's "Pig Market." Space could be rented in tenement buildings and apartments converted into miniature factories.

Good profits could be made by paying the garment workers in these cramped and unsanitary "sweatshops" as little as possible (ranging from $3 to $12 per week), making them work as long and intensively as possible (generally 84 hours per week), compelling them to buy or rent their own machines, supply their own needles and thread, and even requiring that they pay a fee for the privilege of securing a job in the shop. The larger manufacturers played off these "sweatshop" contractors against each other, by utilizing the inferior pay and conditions of the sweat-shop workers to force down the somewhat better wages and conditions of their own employees, and increasing the hours of work (which tended to fluctuate around 60 hours per week) in the larger shops.

The occupational structure in the women's garment industry of this period was complex. There were cloakmakers, dressmakers, waistmakers, hatmakers, those making underwear, knitgoods workers, embroiderers, and more. The four basic occupational divisions that came to dominate the industry were seen as constituting four basic crafts. The cloakmakers made outerwear such as overcoats and capes (which required somewhat greater skill than other clothing), were predominantly male, and tended to be among the most volatile, radical, and militant of the workers in the industry. The cutters, also predominantly male, were the most highly paid and highly skilled, with a reputation for being the practical-minded elite in the industry's labor force. (A significant number of cutters were native-born Americans or Americanized Irishmen, Germans, and Jews). The pressers were especially muscular, thanks to the strength needed to handle the heavy irons required to press the various garments being produced, and were commonly seen as being interested in more down-to-earth matters. The great majority of women workers in the industry were concentrated among the dressmakers and were eventually seen by many as being the most idealistic and radical element in the workforce.

A very high percentage of the garment workers were youthful, close to half being under the age of 31. As many as 80 percent were eastern and southern European immigrants, with a majority being Jewish and a large minority being Italian. Although religion was a significant ideological and cultural element among these workers, radical secular ideologies—particularly various currents of socialist and anarchist thought—had a powerful impact among them as well. Particularly in New York City, a strong labor-radical subculture flourished among Jewish immigrant workers. Key figures in this subculture were men who became leading figures in the socialist movement such as Abraham Cahan, editor of various left-wing publications (the last and most famous being the Jewish Daily Forward), and labor lawyers Morris Hillquit and Meyer London, the scholar Isaac Hourwich, and others who were destined to have, as a consequence, a profound influence in the rising Jewish-American sector of the labor movement.

The Long March to Unionization

The earliest unionizing efforts among "modern" garment workers were loosely affiliated with the Knights of Labor in the 1880s, but hit-or-miss organizational efforts did not yield any permanent organization. One AFL affiliate, the United Garment Workers, was a relatively conservative and in many areas a corrupt organization. Tending toward an exclusive focus on such skilled workers as tailors and cutters, the organization's president once confessed a "lack of confidence in the possibility of organizing these people," meaning new immigrants, political radicals, Jews, women, unskilled workers. Such an attitude made the United Garment Workers increasingly irrelevant in the face of dramatically shifting economic and social realities that were reshaping the industry. (In 1914 Sidney Hillman and others would be compelled to lead a mass breakaway from the United Garment Workers to form the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America.)

By the end of the 1880s clusters of socialist and anarchist activists were forming cadres that would produce more sustained effort among workers to "educate, agitate, and organize" around the trade union idea. In the early 1890s such developments were beginning to bear fruit. Cahan, Hillquit, and others (at this time associated with the Socialist Labor Party) organized the United Hebrew Trades in New York, rallied radicals around Abraham Bisno (who later became a leading figure in the ILGWU) in Chicago, and organized the Workers Education Society. Philadelphia anarchists organized the Jewish Federation of Labor. All of these new groups gave special attention to organizing garment workers. A number of militant strikes and vibrant local unions resulted, particularly among the cloak-makers.

In the forefront of organizing efforts in New York was the charismatic Joseph Barondess, who became the leader of the Operators and Cloakmakers Union, whose membership rose from 2,800 to 7,000 during the tumultuous and victorious strikes of 1890. In 1892 Barondess established the International Cloak Makers Union of America, which became part of the AFL.

The fragile new union soon succumbed to employer assaults combined with factional turmoil. The Chicago affiliate, led by Abraham Bisno, was crushed when it supported the ill-fated Pullman Strike led by Eugene V. Debs's American Railway Union. The Philadelphia cloakmakers moved back and forth between the AFL and Knights of Labor. Under the sectarian leadership of Daniel De Leon, the Socialist Labor Party organized its own union federation, the Socialist Trades and Labor Unions (STLA), which made demands on the union's loyalties. Future ILGWU leader Benjamin Schlesinger and Joseph Schlossberg, who was later prominent in the Industrial Workers of the World and later the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, were leading figures in the STLA. Conflicts between anarchists (with whom Barondess formed an alliance) and socialists also took their toll.

As the International fell apart, Barondess regrouped his New York forces into the United Brotherhood of Cloakmakers' Union No. 1 of New York and Vicinity. "In addition to political difficulties there was the difficulty of maintaining internal discipline," Louis Levine, official historian of the ILGWU, later recounted. "The members of the union regarded the paid officers with suspicion as 'job holders.' On the other hand, the paid officials were not too respectful of the 'rank-and-file.'" Tensions and conflicts in Barondess's organization came to be overshadowed, however, by objective realities. Between 1890 and 1900 the number of garment industry establishments had grown from 1,224 to 2,701, the value of products rose from $68 million to $159 million, and the number of workers grew from 39,149 to 83,739. More and more garment workers meant an expansion of the oppressive conditions to which they were subjected. The need to organize the unorganized—to protect the situation of those in unions being no less than the moral imperative to help those who were not—became clear to all.

Birth and Evolution

On 3 June 1900, in response to the call from Cloakmakers' Union No. 1, 11 delegates representing seven local unions with 2,000 members met at New York City's Labor Lyceum to establish an industrial union of all crafts and occupations within the women's garment trades. The new organization was called the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and within 20 days was granted a charter from the American Federation of Labor. Starting with only $30 in its treasury and no funds to pay its officers and organizers, it nonetheless grew dramatically to 9 locals and 4000 members within a year, and then to 51 locals and almost 10,000 members (of whom 3,500 were women) by 1903.

From the beginning, the ILGWU represented a curious blend of conservatism and radicalism as reflected in different ways in all of its leaders. Although trade union moderate Barondess was decisive in its founding, the similarly decisive layers of socialists in the union prevented his ascension to leadership of the ILGWU. The first president and secretary-treasurer of the union were the relatively undistinguished Herman Grossman and Bernard Braff. The union took its place unambiguously in the left wing of the AFL, favoring industrial unionism, independent political action on the part of the labor movement, and association with the new Socialist Party of America, founded in 1901 by Eugene V. Debs, Morris Hillquit, and others. In 1903 Socialist Party partisan Benjamin Schlesinger became president of the union only to be dislodged in a factional struggle that ultimately brought in the more conservative team of James McCauley and John Dyche as president and secretary-treasurer. Yet Schlesinger was manager of the powerful New York Joint Board of Cloakmakers (and become ILGWU president again in 1914).

Dyche came to be known as the "Jewish Gompers," a former socialist who favored "pure and simple" unionism, and was the major power in the leadership (the presidency going to the ideologically compatible Abraham Rosenberg). Dyche was challenged not only by the left-wing faction of his own union, but also by a decision of the rival Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) to organize garment workers. The IWW insurgents were led from 1905 to 1907 by Morris Sigman, who subsequently rejoined the ILGWU and become its secretary-treasurer in 1914 and its relatively conservative president in 1923. In 1928 Schlesinger returned to help facilitate a transition to the leadership of a young socialist trade unionist named David Dubinsky, who, while championing industrial unionism (and helping to launch the CIO in the 1930s), also embraced the Democratic Party. Dubinsky maintained a nostalgic attachment to shreds of socialist rhetoric, though he also insisted, "Trade unionism needs capitalism like a fish needs water."

The different blends of radical and conservative elements in the makeup of the various leaders of the ILGWU were only one aspect of the union's story. Its idealism, hard-fought strikes, and the militancy of its membership, plus the strength of its organization, allowed the ILGWU to help many thousands of garment workers to leave behind the worst of the sweatshop conditions and secure qualitatively better lives. This situation was not decisively reversed until the final decades of the twentieth century, which brought dramatic erosion of union gains as a side effect of the restructuring of the global economy.

Key Players

Barondess, Joseph (1867-1928): Barondess came from Russia to the United States in 1888 and quickly assumed leadership among his fellow garment workers for many years. Despite left-wing associations, he gravitated toward more moderate currents in the American Federation of Labor. Later in life, he went into the insurance business and became involved in civic and Zionist activities.

Bisno, Abraham (1866-1929): Working in the garment trades from the time his family arrived in the United States from Russia in 1881, Bisno became involved in anarchist and socialist currents in Chicago and union organizing efforts. Prominent among union leaders in the Chicago garment workers, he became a founder and leader of the ILGWU, though he was often "too militant" for the organization's top leadership. He left the ILGWU in 1917 and went into real estate but maintained his labor and radical sympathies.

Cahan, Abraham (1860-1951): After coming to the United States from Russia in 1882, Cahan became part of the socialist movement and an eloquent pioneer in Yiddish-language literature. For many years the editor of the profoundly influential mass-circulation Jewish Daily Forward, Cahan exercised immense influence among the leadership and membership of the ILGWU.

Dyche, John A. (1867-1938): Emigrating from Russia to England, and then to the United States in 1901, Dyche began as a socialist critical of outside "meddlers" in the labor movement. Dyche was hostile to trade union militancy and left-wing influence, knowledgeable about the garment industry, and inclined to collaborate with employers to secure the best deal for his members. He was ILGWU secretary-treasurer from 1903 until 1914.

Hillquit, Morris (1869-1933): Arriving in the United States from Latvia in 1886, Hillquit evolved from garment worker to a prominent labor lawyer. A leading organizer of the United Hebrew Trades in the 1880s, he became an influential force in the ILGWU. He was active in the Socialist Labor Party and helped lead a revolt against SLP leader Daniel De Leon. Hillquit became a founding member and central leader of the Socialist Party of America.

Schlesinger, Benjamin (1876-1932): A Lithuanian immigrant who arrived in the United States in 1891, Schlesinger became involved with the Socialist Labor Party and as an activist among garment workers, then with the Jewish Daily Forward and the Socialist Party of America. He was a capable organizer and leader of the ILGWU, for which he served as president in 1903-1904, 1914-1923, and 1928-1932.

Sigman, Morris (1880-1931): Going from Russia to England in 1901 and then to the United States a year later, Sigman got a job as a cloak presser and soon became a leading activist in the Industrial Workers of the World. He first challenged the ILGWU then switched over to it in 1907. He allied himself with socialists in the union and became secretary-treasurer in 1914, first vice president in 1920, and president in 1923, a position he held for five years during a "civil war" that broke Communist Party influence in the union.

See also: American Federation of Labor; Industrial Workers of the World; Socialist Party of America; Knights of Labor; Protocol of Peace.



Bisno, Abraham. Abraham Bison, Union Pioneer. Madison:University of Wisconsin Press, 1967.

Epstein, Melech. Jewish Labor in U.S.A., 1882-1952. New York: KTAV Publishing House, 1969.

——. Profiles of Eleven. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1987.

Fraser, Steven. Labor Will Rule: Sidney Hillman and the Rise of American Labor. New York: Free Press, 1991.

Hardy, Jack. The Clothing Workers, A Study of the Conditions and Struggles in the Needle Trades. New York: International Publishers, 1935.

Laslett, John. Labor and the Left: A Study of Socialist and Radical Influences in the American Labor Movement, 1881-1924. New York: Basic Books, 1970.

Levine, Louis. The Women's Garment Workers: A History of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. New York: B.W. Huebsch, 1924.

Stein, Leon, ed. Out of the Sweatshop: The Struggle for Industrial Democracy. New York: Quadrangle/New York Times, 1977.

Stolberg, Benjamin. Tailor's Progress: The Story of a Famous Union and the Men Who Made It. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran and Co., 1944.

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

—Paul Le Blanc

International Ladies Garment Workers Union

views updated May 14 2018


INTERNATIONAL LADIES GARMENT WORKERS UNION (ILGWU), founded in 1900, a major factor in American labor, radical, socialist, and Jewish history. The first leaders of the ILGWU, moderate Jewish socialists and labor veterans, were the victorious survivors of many years of labor struggles and internecine political warfare in the New York garment industry, which had been inundated by immigrant Jewish "greenhorns." These "Columbus tailors" found their advocate in Abraham Cahan's Jewish Daily Forward, which was struggling to assimilate them into socialist-flavored Americanism.

As a small, moribund, craft-minded organization, the early ILGWU narrowly beat off an Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) challenge in 1905–1907.But an immigrant flood revitalized the Jewish labor movement in the aftermath of the 1905 Russian Revolution. Radicalized by the revolution and trained in trade unionism by the Jewish Labor Bund, this huge wave of immigrants waged a series of mass garment strikes. The 1909–1910 "rising of the twenty thousand" in the New York shirt-waist industry was the first mass strike of women workers in American history. The weak ILGWU left much of the day-to-day administration of the strike in the hands of rank-and-file workers, laborite-feminist activists from the Women's Trade Union League, and woman volunteers from the Socialist Party (SP).The success of the strike paved the way for the unionizing "great revolt" of fifty thousand New York cloak makers, mostly males, in 1910, which established the ILGWU as the third-largest member of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) by 1914.

The "great revolt" was resolved through a "protocol of peace," brokered by Louis Brandeis, that was widely hailed as the Progressive Era model for permanent cooperation between capital and labor. This Progressive pipe dream broke down rapidly. The ILGWU was shaken

by a massive cloak makers' rebellion against the protocol that prefigured later internal conflicts. The combatants reached a settlement through SP mediation, solidifying the union's Socialist ties, and the ILGWU became a powerful American institution. The union initially opposed World War I, and hailed the Russian Revolution, but its officers continued to face rank-and-file leftist dissent. They hinted that youthful female dissidents radicalized by the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and revolution abroad were victims of sexual frustration.

During the great labor upsurge of 1919, dissidents formed workers councils, inspired by workers' councils in Seattle and Petrograd. The ILGWU formed the strongest trade union base of the early American Communist Party (CP).The political, generational, ethnic, and gender contradictions within the ILGWU led to a decade of internecine warfare between pro-CP insurgents and pro-SP union leaders. The hardnosed anticommunist Morris Sigman, a former Wobbly (IWW member), kept a tenuous grasp on the ILGWU's national machinery but had to concede control of the New York ILGWU to the rebels. The peak of the insurgency was the left-led 1926 New York cloak makers' strike. The strike achieved ambiguous results, which Sigman seized on as his golden opportunity to purge the left New York officers, touching off a bloody civil war in the whole garment industry. Several lives were lost, and scores of workers were hospitalized. ILGWU leaders managed to regain control with assistance from business, government, and organized crime. The ILGWU's street general was SP spokesperson Abe Beckerman, who was involved in the Jewish gangster "Lepke" Buchalter's infamous "Murder Incorporated." When the dust cleared, little was left of the ILGWU. Wages plunged, hours lengthened, and sweatshop conditions were restored.

The left attempted to replace the ILGWU with a "red union," but the effort was stillborn due to bureaucratic dithering by the "Lovestonites," a CP faction led by Jay Lovestone, and ultraleftist policies imposed by the increasingly Stalinized CP. The ensuing purge of the Lovestonites from the party enabled the ILGWU to regain control of the trade.

The ILGWU experienced a resurgence during the New Deal. The Jewish needle trades unions had a friend in the White House in Franklin D. Roosevelt. The massive ILGWU strikes in 1933 and 1934 benefited from a rare combination of government sympathy, weak resistance from manufacturers, and a tremendous release of pent-up militancy. Soon the ILGWU totally dominated

the industry. The ILGWU leader David Dubinsky, a veteran of the Jewish Labor Bund, became one of America's most important union leaders. A Tammany politician quipped that "the Jews have drei veltn—di velt, yene velt, un Roosevelt" (three worlds—this world, the other world, and Roosevelt).Consequently, during the Holocaust the ILGWU did not militantly challenge Roosevelt's refusal to admit Jewish refugees. As late as 1947 hourly wages for ILGWU members were higher than wages for autoworkers. The New Deal alliance between the Roosevelt administration and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which shaped later American trade unionism, was molded on the template of the special relationship between Roosevelt and Jewish Socialist needle trades officials like Dubinsky.

During the Roosevelt and Truman administrations the ILGWU pioneered many hallmarks of American unionism. But while most American workers experienced dramatically increased prosperity in the Eisenhower era, ILGWU leaders, fearful of nonunion competition, orchestrated a decline in garment wage levels that made the ILGWU notorious for "fighting for lower wages." The ILGWU experienced a major demographic transformation. Jews exited the shop floor, replaced by blacks, Puerto Ricans, and eventually Asians. By 2002, Jews in the garment industry were predominantly union officers or employers.

After World War II the ILGWU, in close collaboration with the U.S. government, threw its considerable resources into the struggle against communism. Love-stone became the ILGWU director of international affairs and the key personal link between the AFL-CIO, led by George Meany, a Dubinsky protégé, and the Central Intelligence Agency. After Dubinsky retired in 1966, the ILGWU became one of the foremost labor opponents of foreign imports.

In the late twentieth century the rapidly declining ILGWU attempted to organize new immigrant sweat-shop labor and defended the rights of undocumented workers. But the old pattern of collaboration with employers to protect the industry persisted. Indeed, some Hong Kong sweatshops moved to New York in the 1980s and set up as union shops. Former ILGWU officials dominated The Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees, which was formed in 1995 through a merger of the ILGWU with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, an old rival based in the men's clothing industry.


Dubinsky, David, and A.H. Raskin. David Dubinsky: A Life with Labor. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977.

Epstein, Melech. Jewish Labor in U.S.A: An Industrial, Political, and Cultural History of the Jewish Labor Movement. 2 vols. New York: 1950–1953.Reprint, New York: Ktav Publishing House, 1969.

Foner, Philip S. "Revolt of the Garment Workers (I and II)." In History of the Labor Movement in the United States. Vol.5. New York: International Publishers, 1988.

Gurowsky, David. "Factional Disputes within the ILGWU, 1919–1928." Ph.D. diss., State University of New York at Binghamton, 1978.

Kwong, Peter, and JoAnn Lum. "Hard Labor in Chinatown: How the Other Half Lives Now." Nation, 18 June 1988.

Liebman, Arthur. Jews and the Left. New York: Wiley, 1979.

Myerson, Michael. "ILGWU: Fighting for Lower Wages." Ramparts, October 1969.

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

John DeweyHolmes

See alsoClothing Industry ; Labor ; Trade Unions .

International Ladies Garment Workers Union

views updated Jun 11 2018


INTERNATIONAL LADIES GARMENT WORKERS UNION (ilgwu), U.S. trade union that represented hundreds of thousands of apparel industry workers over the course of the 20th century. Founded by 11 male Jewish tailors on June 3, 1900, the ilgwu relied on a largely female rank-and-file membership for most of its history, even as it excluded women from its top leadership positions.

The ilgwu became a mass movement due to the support and leadership of the young Jewish and Italian female immigrants who participated in the Shirtwaist Strike of 1909. These workers, mostly between the ages of 16 and 25, fashioned the popular buttoned blouses known as "shirtwaists." They worked for long hours in shops that often lacked sanitary lavatories and accessible fire exits; contractors deducted expenses from their already low wages for electricity, needles, belts, and even their chairs. Although many male ilgwu workers doubted that "temporary" female workers could organize, some of these women fought against these oppressive working conditions by forming Local 25.

In the fall of 1909, in response to strikes that had erupted in individual garment shops, the ilgwu called a meeting at New York's Cooper Union. The roster of speakers included such labor luminaries as Samuel *Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor, Meyer *London, the first Lower East Side socialist to be elected to Congress, and Mary Dreier of the middle-class Women's Trade Union League. The union had not invited any working women to speak, but that did not stop Local 25's Clara Lemlich from demanding the podium. Interrupting the proceedings, she called for a general strike. Her impassioned Yiddish oration ignited what became known as the "Uprising of the Twenty Thousand." Between 30,000 and 40,000 garment workers, mostly young Jewish women, walked out of their shops in subsequent weeks. The strike achieved some successes, including material improvements for the workers and obtaining union recognition in some shops. The strikers' resolve also transformed the ilgwu from a financially insolvent organization with little bargaining power to a major player in labor disputes while demonstrating that unskilled women workers could wage militant strikes.

However, the partial nature of the 1909 victory became evident on March 25, 1911, when the Jewish-owned Triangle Shirtwaist factory caught fire. The factory owners had not complied with the legal safety guidelines specified in the 1909 settlement; the building possessed only two of the three staircases required by law and the doors to those stairways had been locked to prevent "pilferage." The windows became the only escape route for the workers and many jumped to their deaths. Too late for the 146 workers who perished in the blaze, the Triangle Fire led to more effective safety regulation in New York State.

In addition to organizing and negotiating, the members of ilgwu Local 25 also believed that the union should provide workers with educational and social opportunities. In 1916, Local 25 convinced the International to start an education department. No one devoted more energy and guidance to this aspect of the union than Fannia M. *Cohn, an activist who became the education department's executive secretary. Cohn spearheaded the Worker's University, where esteemed scholars delivered lectures, and the department established eight "Unity Centers" in New York City to offer more basic courses in English, hygiene, gymnastics, speech, and literature. The members of Local 25 also believed that women workers deserved recreational opportunities to relax and socialize with their union sisters where they could build the personal bonds that would sustain their political struggles. In 1916, the local established Unity House, a vacation retreat in the Catskills region in New York. In 1921, Unity House, now located at a site in the Pocono Mountains which could accommodate 900 people, was put under the direct administration of the ilgwu.

After a decline in the 1920s, and in spite of internal fights between communists and socialists within the union, the ilgwu re-emerged in the pro-labor, New Deal 1930s as a major player in labor negotiations and also began to devote attention to the "International" elements of organizing. Rose *Pesotta, the only woman on the General Executive Board of the 85% female union and vice president from 1934 until 1942, was sent to organize garment workers in Montreal and Puerto Rico. The union expanded its public relations in the 1930s, promoting its message to the public in innovative ways. In 1936, the union produced a musical revue called Pins and Needles, which became the longest-running musical of its time. The show, written by Harold Rome and performed entirely by ilgwu members, dealt with issues of work, unionism, and, by the 1940s, war and fascism, with humor and wit.

While the ilgwu had great success in reducing sweatshop labor in the United States in the early part of the century, sweatshop conditions re-emerged in the late 20th century and continued into the 21st. To avoid labor regulations in the U.S., some American clothing manufacturers relocated their factories to Third World countries that did not enforce minimum wage and safety laws. The ilgwu began responding to this global problem in the late 1960s and continued to combat these issues into the 21st century. In 1995, the ilgwu merged with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textiles Union to form unite, the Union of Needle Trades, Industrial and Textile Employees. In 2004, unite again combined with here, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union. As with the ilgwu at the beginning of the 20th century, unite-here still serves a large immigrant constituency, mostly of Latino, Asian, and African American descent. Women continue to comprise a majority of the membership.


P.E. Hyman and D.D. Moore (eds.), "International Ladies Garment Workers Union," in: Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, vol. 1 (1997), 674–80; A. Kessler-Harris, "Organizing the Unorganizable: Three Jewish Women and Their Union," in: Labor History, 17 (1976), 5–23; A. Orleck, Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and Working-Class Politics in the United States (1995); G. Tyler, Look for the Union Label (1995).

[Rachel Kranson (2nd ed.)]

About this article

International Ladies Garment Workers Union

All Sources -
Updated Aug 13 2018 About content Print Topic


International Ladies Garment Workers Union