International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union

Identification: Industrial labor union

Dates: 1900-1995

Also known as: ILGWU

Significance: The International Ladies’ GarmentWorkers’ Union improved working conditions for garment makers, most of whom were immigrants. Under the leadership of David Dubinsky, himself an immigrant, the union became recognized as one of the most powerful labor unions in the United States.

The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), originally formed by the amalgamation of seven unions, at first consisted mostly of eastern European Jewish immigrants, although a few of the original two thousand members were of Irish descent. For years, the union was characterized by internal strife, mainly among the immigrants, many of whom were anarchists, socialists, or members of other radical groups; each group wanted to dominate the union. Still, the union grew.

From 1909 to 1911, large-scale strikes occurred in the garment industry. Most of the people in the picket lines were Jewish women, though a number of Italian immigrants also joined the lines. As a result of the strikes, clothing manufacturers agreed to deal directly with the ILGWU. Part of the settlement of the strikes involved the Protocol of Peace, which led to improved working conditions, increased wages, and shorter workdays for garment industry workers. The agreement was a departure from the strife that many of the immigrant members had brought to the union.

The ethnic makeup of the ILGWU changed over the decades. In 1919, many Italian women’s unions were chartered as part of the ILGWU, and an even larger number of Italian immigrants joined the union during the 1930’s. Also during that decade, immigrants fromAsian countries such as Syria, Lebanon, and Armenia entered the garment trade and eventually joined the ILGWU. Later, thousands of Latin American workers, including Puerto Ricans and Mexicans, entered the garment trade and became ILGWU members.

Official seal of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union
Official seal of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. (The Granger Collection, New York)

The union thrived under the leadership of David Dubinsky, a Polish immigrant who moved to New York City in 1911, where he worked as a cloak cutter and soon joined the ILGWU. During the 1920’s, the communists tried to take over the union, but the moderates, led by Dubinsky, stopped them. Dubinsky became union president in 1932 and remained in that position until he retired in 1966. While he was union president, ILGWU membership grew significantly, especially during the Great Depression and the 1940’s. By 1942, the ILGWU had about 300,000 members. Many historians have argued that under Dubinsky’s leadership, the ILGWU became one of the most effective American labor unions. By the 1960’s, however, the number of garment workers in the United States was begining to decline as a result of cheaper clothing imports and the offshoring of factories. After Dubinsky’s retirement, the ILGWU started to lose membership.

By 1995, the union had only about 125,000 members. That year, it united with the Amalgamated Clothing and TextileWorkers’ Union to form the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE!), representing more than 250,000 members. During its time, theILGWUbettered working conditions for thousands of immigrants in the garment industry. It improved the sanitation, safety, and comfort of the workplace and won living wages and respect for workers.

Richard Tuerk

Further Reading

  • Bender, Daniel E. Sweated Work, Weak Bodies: Anti- Sweatshop Campaigns and Languages of Labor. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2005. 
  • Danish, Max D. The World of David Dubinsky. Cleveland: World Publishing, 1957. 
  • Wolensky, Kenneth C., Nicole Wolensky, and Robert P. Wolensky. Fighting for the Union Label: The Women’s Garment Industry and the ILGWU in Pennsylvania. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002. 

See also: Garment industry; Great Depression; Industrial Workers of theWorld; Irish immigrants; Italian immigrants; Jewish immigrants; Labor unions; Mexican immigrants; Puerto Rican immigrants; Sweatshops; Triangle Shirtwaist fire; Women immigrants.

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