Growing up in New York I lived in the orbit of the ILGWU.
The International Ladies Garment Workers Union was “The Union”.
Everyone called it simple that, reverting to “the ILGWU” only for the uninitiated from out of town.
The Union was the champion of the workers, the people who before the union had and not long ago had sat bent over sewing machines for 12 hours a day. It supported liberal causes long before the word became the right wing fear code for brown skin and the “welfare class”.
What my father and his generation understood by the word was simple: helping people rise: that those on the lowest rung of the ladder could move off and up, just as they had themselves. They believed in this not just because it was the right thing to do, but because the result was better for all of us.
It was, of course, a statement of belief in the idea that society was more than a collection of individuals and their rights. Being part of a group brought mutual responsibilities and mutual benefits.
It was still the land of opportunity. People still felt the tide of optimism after the war. So why not give everyone every opportunity to rise? The Union did it with better wages, safer work places, health clinics, education programs, and its own resort.
It’s hard to imagine now how large a shadow the garment industry cast in the city. There was, of course, “the garment district”. Through it ran “Fashion Avenue”. It employed thousands and generated many millions in revenues, wages and taxes. My father, on the periphery, represented a trade association of small “contractors, men whose “shops” did mostly “piece work” for the big manufacturers. The shops had anywhere from 25 to 100+ machines.
His job was to represent the contractors and negotiate contracts with the manufacturers and the Union.
The contractors would rarely make the whole garment. They would make sleeves or shoulders or buttonholes. My father, like many in the trade, could look at a garment and estimate its cost, the labor, the time it would take, etc. He worked closely with the Union and was a confident of many senior officials.
His affiliation with “the movement” stretched back, as many of theirs did, to the Jewish Labor Bund beginnings in Poland. As a young man he organized workers and made speeches in support of improving the lives of workers. In this country he worked for the Jewish Labor Committee, a Union-backed organization that rescued people from Nazi-occupied Europe and helped place war orphans.
In the 60’s it played a significant role in the Union’s campaign for Civil Rights.
One my father’s great friends was Louis Stulberg, who succeeded long-time ILG president David Dubinsky. Stulberg silently paid his rent after my mother, Ida Pearlstein, died and while he was out of work for the best part of a year, with two young children to support. It was something that was never mentioned.
Dubinsky, Sasha Zimmerman, George Rubin, Stulberg, Luigi Antonini were big personalities. Some of the Union people, the business agents who were responsible for organizing union shops, were just big. They had to be. Some manufacturers could be violently anti-union. They thought it cost them too much money and that they should be allowed to treat their workers as they chose. They hadn’t yet figured out how to export their jobs south to Georgia or east to Viet Nam and China, and take our tax base with them. In the periphery there was always organized crime: “the boys”. If you left them alone, my father counseled, they generally left you alone. If you “joined”, by borrowing money at loan-shark rates because you had nowhere else to go for capital, or to pay off debts, you were a member for life. Resignation was not in the by-laws.
The Union was as much a social welfare organization as a tool for collective bargaining.
When I was in high school I worked summers at Unity House, the leafy union resort for its members in the Poconos, just over the Pennsylvania border. If you were a union member you got two weeks sitting in Adirondack chairs or freezing in the spring-fed lake with the perch. In the evening, when you finally dragged yourself away from the second and third helpings at the table, you would be entertained by nightly concerts in the auditorium. The programs ran from Italian opera to popular music. One memorable rock-and-roll night featured Little Anthony and the Imperials, who closed their set with a falsetto-driven rendition of “Hava Nageela”. Think a Bar Mitzvah in Harlem.
I was a bus boy, then a waiter in the cavernous dining room. There was a huge Diego Rivera mural at the entrance, which no one took notice of until it, and the dining room, burnt down. There on the porch, ignoring Mr Rivera’s passionate dream of revolution, the guests lined up every night, dreaming of the Italian chef’s veal stew. At 7PM, like advance shock troops of the Appetite Army, the doors opened and they rushed in, not so much hungry for food as hungry to eat. The act of eating and eating a lot, of being able to eat a lot, of being seen to eat a lot, was some kind of sign of being OK.
The kitchen was divided into two parts, Jewish and Italian. The Jews would get gefilte fish. The Italians, eggplant parmesan. Everybody got roast beef. The kitchen practiced a seniority system. The veteran waiters got the first choice of rolls in the morning and the ends of the roast beef in the evening. All the guests wanted end pieces once someone at their table asked, and someone always asked. The competition in the kitchen was fierce for the well-done ends of roast beef. Unfortunately, a roast only had two ends. The eggplant parmesan was the best I have ever had, and I was not alone in that judgment. The waiters kept multiples in their station drawers to enjoy after work with a beer, until the stocky Italian chef, who wondered why there were never enough for the guests, found out. One evening after dinner he ran around the dining room opening drawers, waving his chef’s knife. Afterwards there were always enough eggplant parmesan to go around.
One of my fellow waiters was Jon Dolgen, son of Abe Dolgen. Abe was a Union official and friend of my father’s. Jon became Head of Paramount. When I saw his picture in the paper 40 years later it, was Abe. In 1963 we decided not to go to the March on Washington where Martin Luther King spoke from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial because we wanted to work the weekend for tips, play softball and perhaps get lucky with a waitress after dinner.
So much for our sense of history and commitment to social justice.
The following is from the archives of the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations, where, by the way, my mother, Ida Alter, was one of the first women graduates as an adult student after the war. It’s probably more than any ordinary person needs to know about those pioneering people from the past. But what’s wrong with letting their names ring out over the silent decades, since they built and were “The Union”, which helped so many people rise?
The ILGWU was founded in New York City in 1900 by Jewish, Italian, and some Scots-Irish and Irish immigrants. The Union sought to unite the various crafts in its rapidly growing industry to increase their mutual strength. There was early resistance to the ILGWU from the garment manufacturers with whom they collectively bargained. There were also challenges to the Union’s domination of the trade by the Industrial Workers of the World and by Daniel DeLeon’s Socialist Trades and Labor Alliance.
By 1917, the ILGWU had defeated its rivals. Through a combination of militant and impassioned work stoppages lead by its more radical members and vigorous organizing and negotiation, the Union had also consolidated its power, greatly improved working conditions for its members and created the mechanism for arbitrating disputes and grievances under a labor-management agreement known as the Protocol of Peace. In 1919, the ILGWU became the first American union to negotiate an unemployment compensation fund that was contributed to by its employers.
The momentum of the previous two decades, however, was nearly lost to politically inspired intraunion warfare in the 1920’s. Under its newly elected President Morris Sigman, the Union’s General Executive Board disbanded left-wing groups within the Union in 1923, charging that they were communist cells. The radicals within the Union formed the Joint Action Committee to coordinate their battle with the parent Union. The issue came to a head in 1926 during a bitter and costly Cloakmaker’s strike. Mismanaged by the communist leadership in the local, the strike plunged the International eight hundred thousand dollars into debt. The chaos caused by the strike and the subsequent expulsion of communists from the Union left it greatly weakened. Sigman resigned in 1928 and was succeeded by Benjamin Schlesinger, who had previously lead the Union between 1914-1923. He remained as President until a fatal illness forced him to resign in 1932.
Despite the political turmoil during the 1920’s, the ILGWU pioneered in the establishment of an extremely progressive health care program for its members which included not only regional Union Health Centers but the establishment of a resort for union workers first located in Massachusetts, later in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, known as Unity House. The Union also had an imaginative and pioneering Education Department which not only trained workers in traditional union techniques, but provided courses in continuation education in such basic skills as citizenship and the English language. The ILGWU also offered its members a forum for their social activities—sponsoring such activities as sports teams and even a mandolin orchestra.
In 1932, David Dubinsky was elected President of the ILGWU. Dubinsky and the ILGWU (then 200,000 strong) were to play an important role in fostering industrial unionism in the United States by encouraging the formation of the Committee for Industrial Organization. The Union would be an important political force in New York City and State politics and in the Democratic Party and Liberal Party as well. Dubinsky and his union were also instrumental in the decade-long effort to bring the plight of European Jews suffering under Nazi persecution to the attention of the world through the efforts of the Jewish Labor Committee. The ILGWU leadership included a number of significant figures in labor history in addition to Dubinsky. Among these were former presidents Benjamin Schlesinger, Morris Sigman, Louis Stulberg, and Sol Chaikin. The names of many of the union’s other officials such as Luigi Antonini, Charles Zimmerman, Rose Pesotta, Frederick F. Umhey, Julius Hochman, Fannia M. Cohn, Isidore Nagler, Gus Tyler, and Leon Stein, are also well known to historians. In the period following the Second World War, the union suffered a decline in membership due to the movement of shops from the urban centers in the northeast to the south to avoid unionization and to take advantage of less expensive labor. The ethnic and racial character of the ILGWU also changed as European immigrants were supplanted by Asians, Latin Americans and immigrants from the Caribbean.
The Union’s African-American membership was also to greatly grow during this period. In recent years, despite vigorous efforts by union activists to limit such activities, garment manufacturers were to export their manufacturing abroad, taking advantage of cheap third world labor supplies and further cutting the membership base of the union.
In July 1995 the ILGWU merged with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) at a joint convention, forming UNITE (Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees). At the time the new union had a membership of about 250,000 in the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico.