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At the height of its power during the 1930s and 1940s, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) was one of the most important and progressive unions in the United States. Founded in 1900 as an organization dominated by Jewish and Italian immigrants, its membership rolls expanded greatly in its first few years of operation. Nonetheless, a weak economy and conservative business forces were able to keep the union’s gains in check, leading to two major strikes. 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 cloakmakers. 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.

However, the ILGWU was also beset by devastating rivalries between socialists, anarchists, and other radical movements that had been with the organization since its founding. The problem came to a head in the 1920s when communists tried to take control of the union’s leadership. The communist coup ultimately failed and the moderates, led by David Dubinsky, remained in charge, but the episode cost the union much in terms of morale, time, and money. When Dubinsky was elected president in 1932, 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.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt became a lifelong friend of the ILGWU and a strong supporter of labor issues beginning in 1922 when 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.

By the 1960s, however, cheap imports, restrictive labor laws, and the flight of American factories overseas were beginning to take their toll and the ILGWU’s membership rolls began to diminish. Dubinsky retired in 1966 and over the next thirty years what began as a trickle became a deluge, despite innovative consumer initiatives and organizing efforts with new immigrant groups. In 1995, with only 125,000 members, the ILGWU joined forces with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union to form UNITE!, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, representing over 250,000 workers in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Canada.


Bernstein, Irving. Turbulent Years, A History of the American Worker 1933-1941. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979.

Cook, Blanche Wiesen. Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume One, 1884-1933. New York: Viking Press, 1992, 258, 422.

Cook, Blanche Wiesen. Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume Two, 1933-1938. New York: Viking Press, 1999.

Dubinsky, David and A.H. Raskin. David Dubinsky: A Life With Labor. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1977.

UNITE! Internet on-line. Available From

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