The union label. When I was little, I grew up with these ads. Look for the union label. And we did. Other things we saw on TV were slick. Professional. But the ads for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) used real people – their members – singing the song of working class power, of American jobs, of women proud of what they produced. They were young and old, wore glasses or didn’t. They were white, black, Asian, Latino. They wore knee-length dresses or pants suits like my mother. They looked like my neighbors. Because they were. And everybody knew the words.
I feel loss every time I see these ads. I played several of them today, the 116th anniversary of the ILGWU. I grew up in Brooklyn in Brownsville; working-class, diverse and union. These long-ago TV reminders to keep people working by buying and wearing what they were proud they made, evoke my Jewish neighbors and the parents of my classmates, Black and Latino. And Joey’s father, whose union wasn’t ILG but who worked his whole life putting frames in pocketbooks, sitting on a stool next to a window his employer sealed shut then painted black so he wouldn’t be tempted to daydream. My blacklisted labor organizer father.
Our clothes aren’t made here anymore. Or our bags. Or the TVs these ads once ran on. We still wear things and use things, but very few of us produce them. You can’t go back to what was. But you can remember that it has always been the agitators that moved this country forward. And the people who looked out not only for themselves, but stood up for the dignity of people’s work, saw the new facts early, and stood in the way of injustice. #NotMeUs. #NotMeUs. #NotMeUs.
Labor history. Today 116 years ago, the ILGWU was born – June 3, 1900 – with delegates representing smaller local unions from the major garment centers – NYC, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Newark, New Jersey. They were mostly Jewish immigrants, many of them socialist, recent arrivals from Eastern Europe who were part of trade unions in their countries of origin.
20,000. Here’s what takes my breath away about the ILG; the 1909-1910 “Uprising of the 20,000,” a strike of mostly women shirtwaist makers in New York City. It was then the largest strike by women in American history – incredibly, conducted largely by young women in their teens and 20s. Yddish-speaking, most of them. Here’s what was important: The solidarity and determination of these young women challenged not only their employers for better treatment, but also the men who ran their union. They were forced to recognize how working women were treated on the job; their demands ignored, and sexual harassment and gross invasions of privacy common. They had to teach both their employers and their union that work for women was about more than biding time before marriage and babies. That they expected to be taken seriously.
Wealthy suffragists bind to the women who make their clothes. In the early part of the last century, suffragists began to take up the cause of the poor, immigrant women who made their clothes. It was essentially early and very incomplete intersectional feminism. And it helped raise the profile of ‘working girls’ to the general public. It was the 1909-1910 strike against shirtwaist factories that built Local 25 of the ILGWU in NYC from representing just a few hundred to a force of 20,000 members. It went on for months. After the strike settled, workers were rehired, owners agreed to shorter hours and higher wages. Except for one – – the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.
New York and Newark. In late winter 1910, Triangle workers went back without a contract. Management never addressed any of their concerns, which included the fact that doors were kept locked [because they assumed their workers would steal], and the fire escapes didn’t work. Almost every year I mark the anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire here at Blue Jersey. I went to college at NYU; that building is now part of the campus. You walk below and imagine the scene; fire overhead, the narrow fire escape – which the city had allowed the owners to keep – overloaded with frightened young women, twisting from the heat and falling with hands clutching metal, long dresses fluttering. Screams of neighbors powerless to help as women hurled themselves out the windows on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors to escape the heat. Police officers weeping as they lined up bloodied bodies on the sidewalk to be taken away.
The Triangle Shirtwaist fire was a landmark in history – progressive history, labor law, and women’s history. But four months before it happened, a much less-known fire happened first in New Jersey – the Wolf Muslin Undergarment Factory Fire in Newark, killing more than two dozen young women. It should have been a warning about industrial safety and factory owners’ responsibility to workers. But it wasn’t.
From that fire, and from the organizing that went on just before and after it – much of it by women and immigrants – were leaps forward in workplace safety, women’s rights, fire codes, immigrant rights, community organizing, progressive politics. Nothing came easy; it was all fought for by people looking out for not just themselves, and for every step forward, steps back. I won’t forget that I came of age when the clothes on my back were made by the people I saw every day, and the idea that somehow I was part of the reason their kids had food on their table. You can’t go back to what was. But you can go forward.
Look for the union label
When you are buying a coat, dress or blouse
Remember somewhere our union’s sewing
Our wages going to feed the kids –
And run the house
We work hard, but who’s complaining?
When through the ILG, we’re paying our way
So always look for the union label
It means we’re able to make it in the U.S.A!