Bellanca, Dorothy (1894–1946)
Bellanca, Dorothy (1894–1946)
Latvian-American labor leader and political activist. Born Dorothy Jacobs on August 10, 1894, in Zemel, Latvia; died in New York City on August 16, 1946; youngest of four daughters born to Harry (a tailor) and Bernice Edith (Levinson) Jacobs; attended Baltimore public schools until age 13; married August Bellanca (an Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America [ACWA] organizer), in August 1918; children: none.
Garment worker and organizer for the ACWA; member of the ACWA executive board and vice-president (1934–46); appointed to several state and federal commissions (1930s); founder of the American Labor Party (ALP, 1936); state vice-chair of the ALP (1940, 1944).
Born in Latvia in 1894, six-year-old Dorothy Jacobs arrived in the United States with her family. By age 13, she was working ten hours a day in a Baltimore mens' overcoat factory, making buttonholes for three dollars a week. According to historian Herbert Gutman, "The experience left her with misshapen index fingers and a lifelong commitment to organized labor." By 1909, Bellanca had helped form Local 170 of the United Garment Workers of America (UGWA). The UGWA was a craft-based union which primarily represented the interests of native-born male garment workers. Young immigrant women such as Bellanca felt their concerns were not being met by the UGWA, and in 1914 she led her local into the recently organized Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA). From its beginnings, the ACWA was a more radical, industrial-based union and much more suited to the politics of Dorothy Bellanca.
Bellanca soon rose to prominence in the ACWA, based in part on her organizing abilities. She was active in the 1915 Chicago strike as well as in New York and Philadelphia in 1917. Elected to the ACWA executive board in 1916, Bellanca became the union's first full-time woman organizer a year later. Although she resigned from the executive board in 1918 when she married fellow ACWA organizer August Bellanca, Dorothy Bellanca remained active in the union the rest of her life. She was head of the ACWA Women's Bureau from 1924 to 1926 and participated in several strikes. During a 1933 strike in Rochester, New York, the editor of the ACWA newspaper wrote: "Dorothy is loved by the strikers, admired by the neighbors around the factory, and feared by the police." Bellanca also put a great emphasis on building strong locals, especially in rural areas where small, non-union shops employed young women at very low wages.
Her commitment to industrial unionism was still evident in 1937 when she became a member of the Committee for Industrial Organization's (CIO) Textile Workers' Organizing Committee. Bellanca was also actively involved with the Women's Trade Union League and the Consumers' League of New York. She was appointed to several New York City and State commissions and, in 1938, named to a maternal and child-welfare national advisory committee by U.S. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins . During World War II, Bellanca served on two committees focused on issues regarding the employment of women.
During the 1930s, Bellanca's labor radicalism had spilled over into electoral politics. She supported the candidacy of Fiorello LaGuardia for mayor of New York City in 1933, and, three years later, she founded the American Labor Party (ALP). In 1938, Bellanca was the ALP Party's unsuccessful candidate for the U.S. Congressional seat representing New York's Eighth District. She was, however, twice elected vice-chair of the state ALP in 1940 and 1944. She died in New York City, shortly after her 52 birthday.
Dorothy J. Bellanca Papers, Catherwood Library, Cornell University.
Kathleen Banks Nutter , Department of History, University of Massachusetts at Amherst