ILGWU and the rise of unions





Founded in 1900 as an organization dominated by Jewish and Italian immigrants, its membership rolls expanded greatly in its first few years of operation.

1930 – 40 height of power: the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) was one of the most important and progressive unions in the United States.

ILGWU anthem

In 1909, 20,000 New York shirtwaist makers, mostly women, launched a fourteen-week strike, called “The Uprising” followed several months later by a strike of 60,000 cloak makers. In the negotiations that followed, the ILGWU was recognized by the industry and won higher wages as well as important new benefits for its members, such as health examinations.




In 1911, 146 workers, most of them young women, were killed in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire leading to a public call for laws to protect workers. As a result, by 1920 the ILGWU was one of the most powerful unions in the organized labor movement.

Beset by devastating rivalries between socialists, anarchists, and other radical movements that had been with the organization since its founding.

1920’s The problem came to a head when communists attempt to take control of the union’s leadership. The communist coup led by David Dubinsky ultimately failed and the moderates, remained in charge.



1932 Dubinsky is elected president, the Depression was underway and the union was at an all-time low. Under his dynamic leadership, however, the ILGWU immediately took advantage of the New Deal recovery policies, which included a right to organize and bargain collectively. Membership again soared and in addition to higher wages and shorter hours, the union pioneered benefits such as pension funds, cooperative housing, health care, education and cultural activities.

1922 First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt became a lifelong friend of the ILGWU and a strong supporter of labor issues, she joined the National Women’s Trade Union League. She developed a working relationship with the leaders, and the rank and file members and from her position in the White House was able to encourage cooperation with the unions and advocate for stronger labor laws.

The ILGWU emerged from World War II with a solid membership base and a powerful lobby in Washington.


1960s, cheap imports, restrictive labor laws, and the flight of American factories overseas were beginning to take their toll. The ILGWU’s membership rolls began to diminish.

The Rise of Labor Unions   Labor Day’s Violent Beginnings   Haymarket Martyrs International Workers Day 

1966 Dubinsky retired.

Look for the Union Label

Over the next thirty years what began as a trickle became a deluge, despite innovative consumer initiatives and organizing efforts with new immigrant groups.

1995, with only 125,000 members, the ILGWU joined forces with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union to form UNITE! (now unite here), the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, representing over 250,000 workers in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Canada.

The ILGWU and Social Unionism in Action 

Unite Here History 

Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA) 

Permanent Arbitration Machinery (PMA)  Settlement of commerical disputes between public sector and government.




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