If Union Families Don't Look for the Union Label, Who Will?

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If Union Families Don't Look for the Union Label, Who Will?

Union advertising campaign, 1975


By: International Ladies' Garment Workers Union

Date: c. 1975

Source: Library of Congress. "American Memory Project." 2006 〈http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/awhhtml/awpnp6/d15.html〉 (accessed July 3, 2006).

About the Author: The International Ladies' Garment Worker Union (ILGWU) was founded in 1900. Throughout much of its history the ILGWU was one of America's largest and most influential unions. In the face of a decline in production by domestic garment manufacturers, the ILGWU ceased independent operations after its merger with a larger textile workers union in 1995.


The American union movement can trace its roots to the mid-nineteenth century, when small groups of workers began to associate into larger federations. The most prominent of the early trade unions was the Knights of Labor, founded in 1869. It was surpassed in national influence by the American Federation of Labor, founded by Samuel Gompers (1850–1924) in 1886. The early unions were engaged in ongoing conflicts with the manufacturing concerns of the time, and there was little legislative protection for the advancement of union interests; bitter and often violent confrontations were the norm during labor disputes in this period.

The ILGWU was founded in New York city in 1900 to advance the interest of the overwhelmingly female constituency among the employees in the American garment trades. In particular, the ILGWU had a large percentage of Jewish and foreign workers in its membership. A terrible fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York in 1911 caused the deaths of more than 140 employees, most of whom were young female immigrants. A subsequent inquiry revealed that these deaths were attributable to the workers becoming trapped in the factory as the fire spread; the workers could not escape because the factory doors were kept locked by management during working hours. This evidence of corporate disregard for the safety of the workers was a significant spur to the growth of the ILGWU membership.

The ILGWU leadership became engaged in a series of ideological battles after 1920, as socialist, communist, anarchist and other radical elements endeavored to gain control of the union. David Dubinsky (1892–1982) became the ILGWU president in 1932, a post he held until 1965. Dubinsky charted a moderate political course that stressed conciliation over conflict with the garment industry owners. The ILGWU was also known for its progressive approach to issues such as education and the securing of extended health benefits for its membership. By 1940, the ILGWU was one of the most powerful American unions, with more than 300,000 members. Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklin Roosevelt was one of a number of influential supporters of the ILGWU.

The ILGWU reached its membership peak in 1969, when it had more than 450,000 members. In the 1970s, the influence of the ILGWU declined as the American garment industry began to suffer the combined adverse effects of lower cost foreign imported clothing and the relocation of American owned garment factories to countries that could supply cheaper labor. In 1995 the ILGWU was reduced to a membership of 125,000, and it merged with a larger textile union to create UNITE, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Workers. In 2004, UNITE was itself amalgamated into a larger entity, partnered with a hotel workers union.



See primary source image.


The growth in the stature of American labor unions occurred against a remarkable backdrop of worker-management confrontation that began in earnest with the Haymarket Square riots in Chicago in 1886. In the years that followed, violent strikes were common in the United States, from the battles between the miners' unions and mine owners in the western United States, to the coal mining, textiles and silk workers strikes in the East. The prominence achieved by the ILGWU after 1900 is notable for the lack of violence involved in any of its disputes with the individual factory owners in the garment industry.

Throughout its history, and most prominently during the tenure of David Dubinsky as its president, the ILGWU had a membership comprised of more than 75 percent women; its executive leadership positions remained occupied almost exclusively by men.

However, the ILGWU was regarded as a union that was a strong advocate of women's interests, particularly in its efforts to advance programs such as pay equity and employee health benefits. Prior to the entry of the United States into World War II, the ILGWU and Dubinsky established the Jewish Labor Committee (JLC), an organization that assisted Jewish interests in occupied Europe both during and after the war. Many Jews, primarily women and children, were rescued from the consequences of the German occupation through the efforts of the JLC.

The ILGWU's 1975 advertisement is a significant public pronouncement in a number of respects. The photograph emphasizes the connection between the predominately female garment makers and the female influence and interest in the purchase of the garments produced. The four generations of women pictured symbolize the history of American garment manufacture represented by this physical time line that spans the entire period of the ILGWU's existence.

There is an irony implicit in the advertisement in that the four generations of white women depicted were not representative of the composition of the union membership in 1975. In the early days of the ILGWU, its membership was largely composed of female Jews and Italians; by 1975, the membership demographic had shifted to a mixture predominately made up of persons of black, Hispanic, and Asian heritages.

At the time of the advertisement's publication in 1975, the ILGWU was beginning to feel the pressure from lower priced offshore clothing imports that compelled the union to seek a merger in 1995. In 1975, the union attempted to counter the pressure on the industry posed by lower offshore garment prices with the statement that appears in the lower left corner of the photograph, where in reference to the importance of the union label, the reader is told that anything without the label is either non-union or un-American. The reference to un-American products is an interesting appeal to American patriotism; the ILGWU message is clearly articulated—patriotism is worth more than the simple sticker price. This argument was a central feature of the American domestic automobile manufacturing sector advertising campaigns after 1980, when that industry faced similar foreign pressures.

The rise and the decline of the influence of the ILGWU mirrored the progress of the American economy over its lifetime. The ILGWU prospered during the Great Depression as the Roosevelt New Deal legislation known as the National Industrial Recovery Act provided significantly greater guarantees regarding the right to organize a labor union than had its predecessors. Under the most union friendly regime to that time in American history, the ILGWU grew to exceed 300,000 members by 1940.

The decline of the ILGWU reflected the overall state of American organized labor into the 1990s. In 1953, more than 35 percent of all private sector workers belonged to a union. When the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking national union membership in 1983, 20.1 percent of all American workers belonged to unions. By 2005, the number had fallen to 12.5 percent. The 2005 statistics confirmed that New York state had the highest percentage of union workers at 26 percent of its workforce; in North Carolina and South Carolina, less than 3 percent of all labor is union based.

The American trend is reflected to a lesser degree in the economies of Britain and Canada, both traditionally union-friendly nations. Union membership in Britain has declined from 31 percent to 26 percent since 1995; in Canada during the same period, the decline in union membership has been measured at more than 3 percent.



Parmet, Robert. The Master of Seventh Avenue: David Dubinsky and America's Labor Movement. New York: New York University Press, 2005.

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

Web sites

Syracuse University. "Fannia Mae Cohen—Education Leader in Labor and Workers Education." 2006 〈http://www-distance.syr.edu/long.html〉 (accessed July 3, 2006).

Washington Post. "Labor's Divisions Widen as Membership Declines." March 7, 2005 〈http://www.washingtonpost.com/ap-dyn/articles/A11958-2005Mar6.html〉 (accessed June 25, 2006).