On June 3, 1900, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union formed when delegates from 11 local unions of garment workers from New York, Newark, Baltimore, and Philadelphia met to form a larger unions. The ILGWU would be a major player in American unionism over the next four decades, representing workers in some of the most important strikes and struggles in American history.
The garment shops of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were horrible. In fact, while the garment industry had been central to the entire Industrial Revolution, it had also been at the forefront of organizing for better lives for workers from the nearly the beginning of that revolution as well. The Lowell Mill Girls were the first major example of garment workers organizing to make their lives better and were far from the last.
The influx of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe after 1880 provided the clothing and textile industries another round of cheap workers. No industry had so dedicated itself to finding cheap labor than textiles. Much of the work by the late nineteenth century was piecework done at home in the tenement houses crowded with people working, living, cooking, and sleeping. It was inefficient, but also impossible to organize. But the efficiency drive of capitalism began taking over, creating larger shopfloors that were better for profits and better for organizing. Meanwhile, many of the new immigrants coming to the U.S. and working in the garment trades were Jewish. This really mattered. There were preexisting communities of Jewish radicalism in eastern Europe, largely though not exclusively through the Jewish Bund, that had both secularized and politicized Jewish life. With the rise of a more extreme anti-Semitism at home and economic opportunities in the United States, Canada, Argentina, and other nations, waves of Jews migrated to the Americas. Many of those were fleeing were escaping political repression as much as anti-Semitism. This is how you get Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, Clara Lemlich, and so many other Jewish immigrant radicals. And these would transform the nation’s radical politics, including its unions.
These Jewish socialists were central to the formation of the ILG. But also the early history of the union reflected the conservative craft leadership that the experienced garment workers held on to over the masses of unskilled but politically motivated workers. This goes far to explain the early history of the union, with cautious politically conservative leaders of the Samuel Gompers style trying to hold back the hordes of Jewish socialists, especially women. This came to a head in 1909 during the Uprising of the 20,000, when the largely Jewish and some Italian young women who worked in the sweatshops demanded immediate action and ILG leadership and Gompers urged them to be cautious. This stalemate came to a head when Clara Lemilch, a young garment worker and future communist, stood up in the meeting and, speaking Yiddish, urged her fellow workers to strike. They did and while the Uprising of the 20,000 did not lead to a massive victory, it laid the groundwork for change after the horrors of the Triangle Fire two years later.
In the aftermath of the 1909-11 organizing, the ILG had up to 90 percent of the garment workers in New York City under its wing. It won contracts and that included some unemployment benefits in 1919. But it still remained an undemocratic and fundamentally politically conservative union leadership with socialist membership. The union had internecine war between socialist locals and the conservative international leadership through the 1920s. The Communist Party saw the ILG as a union where it could infiltrate the labor movement and as the IWW-anarchist wing of the American left fell apart in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, the socialist locals became communist. Lemlich herself for instance became a committed communist and remained so through her life.
In 1932, David Dubinsky became ILGWU president after a decade of great internal fighting. Dubinsky was an absolute dictator in his union, though he was hardly the only one, including John L. Lewis in the United Mine Workers of America. But he accepted zero dissent and would fire any other union leader at a whim. Although the rise of Dubinsky finally gave the union Jewish leadership in an overwhelmingly Jewish union, Dubinsky was no better than his predecessors in moving women into leadership in an overwhelming female union. Under Dubinsky, the ILG was also in an interesting place by the 1930s. It was one of the only industrial unions in the AFL, which was dominated by craft unions. But when John L. Lewis led the other industrial unions out of the AFL and formed the CIO, Dubinsky was hesistant to allow the ILG to follow him. For one, he personally hated Lewis. For another, he was so anti-communist that he couldn’t abide the CIO allowing for communist organizers. This was short-sighted. Lewis himself, a lifelong Republican who voted for Hoover in 1932 and Willkie in 1940, used the communist organizers to build the CIO but certainly was going to keep them in check. But Dubinsky lacked this vision or political strategy. Lewis told him, “Who gets the bird? The hunter or the dog?” but Dubinsky just couldn’t get this. The ILG did join the CIO briefly, but by 1940, Dubinsky had returned it to the AFL and he would work with people such as Jay Lovestone in fighting communism wherever he saw it.
All of this is important, but we can overdo just talking about leadership and internal politics. The ILG also was involved in some very interesting projects, such as opening a resort in the Poconos for union members. It offered members Americanization and English courses. Its members were in the pioneering labor play Pins and Needles in the late 1930s. It building housing for its members. It bought radio stations that had pro-labor messages, including in Chattanooga, Tennessee, as it attempted to survive the garment trade’s move to the non-union South.
in the end, the ILG fell to the reality of capital mobility. In the end, the garment trades were low-income, low-profit, and low-capital. That meant that it was not hard to open a new shop wherever you wanted and get whatever profit the department stores offered for your clothing. Sometimes, the union could organize so-called runaway shops, but usually that wasn’t happening. Moreover, Jews were leaving the garment trades, replaced by new waves of immigrants. The union had trouble speaking to and organizing Dominicans or Puerto Ricans or Chinese. In 1995, the ILGWU finally gave up the fight, merging with its long-time rival the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union to form UNITE, which itself soon had to merge with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees with the few remaining textile union shops in the United States.
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