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Local union's of the ILGWU established and maintained robust, ambitious educational departments early on in the international's history. As these groups grew in size and scope, the international office sought to coordinate and centralize educational programming for the union's members, culminating in the formation of the Educational Department in 1918.

The department's programming included courses at the Workers' University at the Washington Irving High School in New York City, lectures at Unity Centers and Unity Houses in the northeastern United States, and other events. The educational offerings of the International's Education Department were varied, as had been the education departments of the local unions, and included not only classes in labor studies but also courses in languages, music, and the arts. The ILGWU's 1937 musical "Pins and Needles" exemplified the diversity of the union's programs.

Directors of the Education Department, especially Fannia Cohn and Mark Starr, wrote extensively on the ILGWU's programs and worker education in general. Longtime director Gus Tyler not only directed the department, but also served as the ILGWU's on-staff scholar. In later years, the Education Department went beyond collaborating with other education organizations and arranging in-house programs to also supporting post-secondary education for union members and their families.