June 3, 2016
By Bill Hohlfeld
New York, NY – On June 3, 1900, eleven delegates representing local unions from the major garment centers of New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Newark would meet in New York City to form the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Many of those delegates were recent immigrants from Eastern Europe, and so had roots in worker organizations in their native lands.
A total of seven different locals were present at the founding of the International, yet the ILGWU would charter only four of them- the Cloak
Makers' Union of New York Local No. 1, the Cloak Makers' Protective Union of Philadelphia Local No. 2, the United Cloak Pressers of Philadelphia Local No. 3, and the Cloak Makers' Union of Baltimore, Local No. 4. A short time later locals would also come into being in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Kalamazoo and San Francisco. The main objective, agreed upon at the convention, would be to improve working conditions within the factories. The delegates were convinced that their odds of doing so would be much improved if the locals all spoke with the one voice of a national organization.
Conditions in the factories were indeed dismal. The nature of the industry was one of low margins and seasonal work. Unscrupulous and unethical subcontractors took advantage of these elements, used them for their own benefit and created what became known as the “sweat shop.” The term came not from the actual heat on the shop floor, but from the practice of sweating more production out of workers (who had no job security) in order to meet ever higher demands for production in peak seasons. Workers were generally expected to work a 55 hr. week, with a ten hr. day from Monday to Friday and an additional “half day” on Saturday.
All this labor was often rewarded with as little as $8.00 a week, and like their brothers in the coal mines who were responsible for purchasing their own tools, seamstresses were routinely charged for needle and thread used on the job. Safety precautions were virtually non- existent as was illustrated by the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire when 145 workers died in a fire in a New York factory due to locked doors and malfunctioning elevators.
By 1910, the organization had grown to a robust membership of 20,000, and despite the name of the organization, both male and female workers made up the membership of the Ladies Garment Workers Union. In New York City, there were many men who worked as fabric cutters and tailors. They would be organized into what would later become Local 10 of the ILGWU. The women, who were employed primarily as shirtwaist makers would go on to join Local 25.
The immigrant workers who formed these organizations were in the vanguard of those fighting for fair wages, health, safety, and overall industrial democracy. Their contribution to the growth of the labor movement in the United states is incalculable.
The International continued to represent workers in clothing production throughout the hay day of American clothing manufacturing until, due to a badly hemorrhaging market driven by offshoring to low wage workers overseas, it was forced to merge with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union to form UNITE in 1995. Which went on to merge with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union in 2004 to form UNITE HERE.