clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Tracing the origins of an early labor union’s NYC history

New, 4 comments

As Labor Day approaches, learn about one union’s high and low points in New York City

New York City is considered a beacon of the Labor movement, so with Labor Day fast approaching, it seems fitting to feature an influential institution that was assembled to protect the basic rights and ensure the safety of its workers. Let us reflect upon the early beginnings and lasting legacy of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), which has dutifully served its constituents (in some form or another) for the past 116 years.

The organization was created on June 3, 1900 by 11 delegates "representing local unions from the major garment centers in New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Newark." They believed that in order to truly improve the working conditions within their cities, it was imperative to organize at the national level. The combined membership of the aforementioned unions was approximately 2,000 workers, with a constituency dominated by Jewish immigrants whom had recently arrived from Eastern Europe.

In its early days, the organization was headquartered on Waverly Place in Greenwich Village. Within its first 10 years, the ILGWU organized two massive movements, the results of which led to a surge in membership and success in achieving critical workplace changes.

In 1909 during the "Uprising of 20,000," mostly female workers held a strike to protest unsafe working conditions at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Although this strike brought public attention to the squalid work conditions (a bitter foreshadowing of what would come only two years later), the strike was not entirely successful as the Triangle Shirtwaist Company refused to recognize the union.

Just a few months after the first strike was settled, the "Great Revolt" was organized, with 60,000 cloakmakers going on strike. The result was an agreement known as the "Protocol of Peace." Unfortunately, these successes would not last. Just a year later, on March 25, 1911, tragedy struck when 146 workers lost their lives in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Most of the victims were young immigrant women who lived in the surrounding neighborhoods. According to Cornell University’s ILGWU page:

locked doors from the factory floor, broken fire escapes, poor communications within the factory, and inadequate firefighting equipment made the fire more lethal than it might have been, and that realization spurred cooperation between organized labor, government, and social reformers to institute unprecedented workplace inspection and regulation.

This was the greatest workplace tragedy in New York City until the attacks on September 11, 2001. In the aftermath, ILGWU leaders worked closely with work place reformers and politicians to bring forth necessary change. Although much too late, this collaboration would continue into the next decades.

Beginning in the 1930s through the 1960s, the ILGWU grew exponentially. During this time, the ILGWU "ran successful organizing campaigns, won significant concessions from manufacturers, and expanded the elements of social unionism for which the union had become so well-known." It was during this time that the union left its headquarters in Union Square and relocated to 1710 Broadway (1943, to be exact). It was a smart move to relocate to larger space; union membership would soon peak in 1950.

Alas, the 1970s and 1980s ushered in the slow decline of the U.S.’s garment manufacturing industry. According to the Cornell site, to counteract this trend, the ILGWU provided "testimony before Congress on manufacturing and trade issues, [and] during this period the ILGWU began an aggressive Union Label campaign, cooperative ventures with industry and government to support the domestic garment industry, and the first Immigration Project within an American union." Although these measures had some success, the increasing decline of this industry within the United States was too strong a force to be stopped.

Union membership continued to decline into the 1990’s. Although its membership has declined substantially, what remains of the ILGWU is still active and continues to advocate for its constituents. This is comforting considering the former ILGWU Headquarters will soon be a distant memory. In 2015, plans were announced to demolish the building and construct a 60-story hotel-condominium building.

The good, the bad—this is all relevant and pertinent history that should be studied. Collectively, I would contend that most workers take for granted the fortunate conditions they now find themselves working in—which are due in large part to the struggles and commitment of those who come before us.