ILGWU: The Unheralded Women of the American Labor Movement

Table of Contents

ILGWU members on strike

ILGWU members on strike

Source: Virginia Commonwealth University

What was the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU)? 

The ILGWU was one of the largest labor unions in the U.S. during the early-to-mid 1900s. It attracted and supported hundreds of thousands of workers in the clothing industry. 

At the time, manufacturing workers worked around 60 hours a week and worked in poor conditions. However, for the same work, women reportedly received around a third of what men did. Economic historian Joyce Burnette writes, “In the factories of the Industrial Revolution, boys and girls earned approximately the same wages for factory work until age 18 when male wages jumped sharply upwards. Few adult males worked in textile factories, but those that did earn almost three times as much as the adult women. Women in their 20s earned 38 percent as much as men the same age, and women in their 30s earned only 35 percent as much.” 

The Zero Theft Movement, along with our community, is striving to eliminate the rigged parts of the U.S. economy. In this article, we will cover the work of the ILGWU and quickly look at women’s wages in the modern-day. 

The Early Years of the ILGWU

On June 3, 1900, a number of local New York City unions came together to form the ILGWU. The members were predominantly young Jewish immigrant women from Eastern and Southern Europe. While the organization found some early success, it took nearly a decade for its members to make a massive mark.

Early Years of the ILGWU

In 1909, the members of the ILGWU reached a breaking point and staged two major strikes in close succession in New York City. The first being the ‘Uprising of 20,000,’ and the second was the ‘Great Revolt.’

Wage stagnation appears to have been an issue since the 70s, with the end of the Bretton-Woods Agreement. Do you think workers are receiving less than they perhaps should?

The Uprising of 20,000

On September 26, 1909, Local 25 of the ILGWU declared a strike against the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. The strikers demanded shorter workdays, safer conditions, and fairer wages. But what started as a spontaneous walkout involving only 20% of the workers of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory would soon grow into a massive uprising. 

News of the strike quickly circulated among New York garment workers. Leaders of the American labor movement spoke at a series of public meetings but did little to motivate the crowds. An unlikely leader, Clara Lemlich, a 23-year-old Ukranian immigrant, took to the stage in frustration and delivered the speech that spurred garment workers to strike en masse. 

“I have listened to all the speakers, and I have no further patience for talk. I am a working girl, one of those striking against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in generalities. What we are here for is to decide whether or not to strike. I make a motion that we go out in a general strike.”

Following Lemlich’s rousing cry, around 20,000 out of the 32,000 workers in the shirtwaist trade walked out in the next two days. Employers responded with violence, hiring local gangs to beat up strikers. The police willfully ignored the blatant assaults while they arrested protestors for minor or sometimes even imaginary offenses. A contingent of affluent women referred to in the media as the ‘mink brigade,’ used their money and privilege to support and protect the garment workers. The strikers remained ambivalent about the aid. 

The Uprising of 20,000 went on for fourteen long weeks, but the hard fight ended in only partial success. Some companies, not including the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, offered an arbitrated settlement in February 1910. The ILGWU accepted the agreement, which guaranteed the improvement of wages, working conditions, and hours. However, the garment workers could not secure union recognition. Perhaps the greatest success of the strike was that it proved to workers how powerful they could be when they worked collectively. 

Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor, spoke on the significance of the strike: “These are the extent to which women are taking up with industrial life, their consequent tendency to stand together in the struggle to protect their common interests as wage-earners, the readiness of people in all classes to approve of trade-union methods on behalf of working women, and the capacity of women as strikers to suffer, to do, and to dare in support of their rights.”

The Great Revolt

Building on the momentum created by the Uprising of 20,000, the ILGWU organized an even larger strike in 1910 involving 60,000 primarily male cloakmakers.

Months of picketing and negotiative impasse eventually led to leaders of the Jewish community brokering a deal between the ILGWU and the Manufacturers Association. This agreement became known as the Protocol of Peace, which included provisions for the establishment of the Joint Board of Sanitary Control, Committee on Grievances, a Board of Arbitration, along with other concessions. Employers ensured the workers would settle their future grievances through arbitration rather than strikes. 

The Great Revolt

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire 

On March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory went up in flames. 146 garment workers tragically died. Some of the workers could not escape because of broken fire escapes, poor communication procedures, insufficient fire-fighting equipment, and locked factory doors.

The ILGWU knew the fire would not have caused so many deaths if the factory had properly protected its workers. Organized labor, government, and social reformers came together to establish proper workplace inspection and regulation.

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Growth of the ILGWU

Following the strikes and the fire, ILGWU membership continued to grow even through World War I. But in its aftermath, public figures and the media began its smear campaign of the labor movement. They associated the labor movement with the First Red Scare, growing fears of an extreme left-wing plot to take over the nation. 

Admittedly, their concerns were not wholly unfounded. Socialists, anarchists, communists, and other radicals had long served as members of the ILGWU. In-fighting between various factions within the organization eventually boiled over in the 1920s, culminating in the communists attempting to seize control of the ILGWU. The moderates, with David Dubinsky at the helm, thwarted the ‘coup,’ but morale, time, and money had already been lost. 

Growth of the ILGWU

The ILGWU elected Dubinsky the organization’s president in 1932 and he held the position until his retirement in 1966. He proved his ability to lead the organization when he successfully shepherded it through the Great Depression when not only the economy but also ILGWU membership were at a historic low. 

Nevertheless, he perhaps best showed his leadership after the enactment of the New Deal (major reform post-Depression). The ILGWU quickly started taking advantage of specific recovery policies, including the right to organize and collectively bargain. The ILGWU had accrued at least 150,000 members in 128 locals when it helped John L. Lewis launch the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1935. The labor movement rapidly grew in popularity and by 1947, the number of ILGWU locals and members had more than doubled, with membership reportedly reaching 337,000 in 1947.

With growing numbers came growing power. The ILGWU secured higher pay, shorter work hours, pension funds, cooperative housing, health care, education, among other benefits. Dubinsky also expanded the organization as a whole, encouraging racial minorities to form branches in the South and West.

David Dubinsky

Photograph of David Dubinsky

Disunion in the Union?

Despite the successful growth and diversification of ILGWU, many members raised questions about its almost exclusively male leadership board. Lest we forget, the organization was called the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Most of its members were female, as well. 

Outspoken members criticized the leadership of sexism. For example, the ILGWU sent Rose Pesotta to lead the Dressmakers General Strike in Los Angeles in 1933. After 26 days of protesting, the strikers won a minimum wage, 35 hours work weeks, and approval to establish a local union.

Pesotta asked to lead the local chapter in 1942 but Dubinsky rejected her request. She immediately left the organization. In her resignation letter, she cited sexism as the reason for her departure, stating that the “men to whom I have been so useful” did not seem “to recognize the fact that [she] was competent” enough to manage locals.

While disgruntled women left the organization, the predominantly male board did not appear to ever face extreme or organized backlash. It was perhaps much harder to challenge Dubinsky and his decisions when he consistently succeeded in growing the ILGWU.

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The End of the ILGWU

After World War II, the ILGWU continued its ascent, reaching its peak right near the end of the 1950s. The next decade, however, would set its decline into motion. Cheap imports, strict labor laws, and the shift to setting up factories overseas significantly hurt the demand for American labor. Moreover, the ILGWU’s shrewd president Dubinsky decided to retire in 1966, destabilizing the organization even further. 

The ILGWU tried to attract new members and stay afloat with creative campaigns. The “Look for the Union Label” advertisement appeared on TV and radio. We’ve linked the famous jingle below:

An article published by Virginia Commonwealth University states, “The ILGWU rolled out their new label with maximum fanfare and explicit appeals to postwar domesticity and traditional gender roles. At events across the nation, the wives of prominent politicians hand-sewed the new label onto garments, while groups of union leaders, elected officials, and garment workers watched and posed for photos. The union plastered the label on thousands of promotional items, as well as clothing, signs, and banners for picket lines and parades.”

It was a last-ditch effort that ended up only as a fad. By 1995, membership had plummeted down to around 125,000. The remaining members of the ILGWU decided to merge with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union to form UNITE!, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees. UNITE! has since expanded into UNITE HERE! which has 300,000 members across Canada and the United States working in the hotel, gaming, food service, manufacturing, textile, distribution, laundry, transportation, and airport industries.

Women’s Labor in the 21st Century

While the ILGWU did much to improve working conditions for women, much work perhaps still remains. 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics found women’s annual earnings were 82.3% of men’s in 2020, and the wage gap is even wider for many women of color.

The Center for American Progress attributes the gender wage gap to four factors:

  • Differences in industries or jobs worked
  • Differences in years of experience are often due to caregiving and other unpaid obligations
  • Differences in hours worked often due to caregiving and other unpaid obligations
  • Discrimination

The organization argues that unionization could help narrow the gap because workers collectively often have greater leverage to push for workplace reforms, fight against discriminatory practices towards specific groups of workers, negotiate for improved working conditions and wages, and more. 

Are some employers taking advantage of women’s labor? If so, how can we start fixing this potential problem?

Fight the Rigged Economy with the Zero Theft Movement

Before we can confidently claim that an area of the economy is rigged, we must first properly research and debate it. That’s where the Zero Theft Movement comes into play. 

We at the Zero Theft Movement are working to achieve economic justice by holding Congress accountable with facts and evidence. On our independent voting platform, our community collaborates to calculate the best estimate for the monetary costs of corruption in the U.S. Our power rests in our numbers, as the ILGWU proved repeatedly. 

Citizens investigators research potential cases of ‘theft’ (unethical, not necessarily illegal, actions that have ripped off the public) and author proposals. The community votes on  whether (1) theft is or isn’t occurring in a specific area of the economy, and (2) how much is being stolen or possibly saved. Through direct democracy, we can collectively decide where the problem areas are and start working on addressing them systematically. 

Many ethical businesses and corporate executives exist. The Zero Theft Movement just wants to eliminate the ill-gotten gains that should be going directly to citizens or indirectly to them through proper, high-quality government services.

Standard Disclaimer

The Zero Theft Movement does not have any interest in partisan politics/competition or attacking/defending one side. We seek to eradicate theft from the U.S economy. In other words, how the wealthy and powerful rig the system to steal money from us, the everyday citizen. We need to collectively fight against crony capitalism in order for us to all profit from an ethical economy.   

Terms like ‘steal,’ ‘theft,’ and ‘crime’ will frequently appear throughout the article. Zero Theft will NOT adhere strictly to the legal definitions of these terms (since congress sells out). We have broadly and openly defined terms like ‘steal’ and ‘theft’ to refer to the rigged economy and other debated unethical acts that can cause citizens to lose out on money they deserve to keep.  

The public has spoken! See how much the rigged economy is ripping off from you

Explore the Problem Hierarchy

We have primers on potential problem areas of the economy. Before you start voting, it’s important you get a basic understanding of the issues at hand, so you can be as helpful as possible to other community members. Take a few minutes and come prepared.

Serve your fellow citizens as a citizen investigator

The success of our movement rests in your hands, the leaders willing to dedicate time to conduct investigations into potentially rigged areas of the economy. Lead the movement and help create an ethical economy.

Heroism made easy

Twenty minutes! That’s all the time you need to contribute to our effort. Just review a proposal and vote. Our reports will only gain legitimacy and power with your contributions.

Commitment to nonpartisanship

The rigged layer causes all of us to suffer, regardless of our political allegiances. If we wish to eliminate rigged economy theft, we have to set aside our differences and band together against crony capitalists and corrupt officials. 

Beyond the International Ladies Garment Workers Union…

An educated public is an empowered public. 

We regularly publish educational articles on, just like this one on the ILGWU. They teach you all about the rigged layer of the economy in short, digestible pieces.