INTERNATIONAL LADIES GARMENT WORKERS UNION

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. -BIBLIOGRAPHY: 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.)

Encyclopedia Judaica. 1971.

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