ILGWU ORGANIZATIONAL HISTORY
The International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union was founded in New York City in 1900
by mostly Socialist immigrant workers who sought to unite the various crafts in the
growing women's garment industry. The union soon reflected changes in the sector and
rapidly organized thousands of unskilled and semi-skilled women, mostly Jewish and
Italian young immigrants. Exemplifying the "new unionism," the ILGWU led two of the
most widespread and best-known industrial strikes of the early Twentieth Century:
the shirtwaist makers' strike of 1909 in New York City and the cloak makers' strike
of 1910 in Chicago. The union also tried to adapt to the fragmented and unstable
nature of the industry. It adopted the "protocol of peace," a system of industrial
relations that attempted to ensure stability and limit strikes and production
disruption by providing for an arbitration system to resolve disputes.
The ILGWU exemplified the European-style social unionism of its founding members.
They pursued bread and butter issues but provided educational opportunities,
benefits, and social programs to union members as well. In 1919, the ILGWU became
the first American union to negotiate an unemployment compensation fund that was
contributed to by its employers. The ILGWU also pioneered in the establishment of an
extremely progressive health care program for its members which included not only
regional Union Health Centers but also a resort for union workers, known as Unity
House. The Union also had an imaginative and pioneering Education Department which
not only trained workers in traditional union techniques, but provided courses in
citizenship and the English language.
David Dubinsky, an immigrant from Belarus who came to the US in 1911, provided strong
leadership that led to unprecedented growth in the union during his presidency from
1932 to 1966. He led the union through successful internal anti-communist struggles,
built on the ascendancy of industrial unionism by encouraging the formation of the
Committee for Industrial Organization, and helped the union become an important
political force in New York City and state politics, and in the national Democratic
Party and Liberal Party as well.
In the period following the Second World War, the union suffered a decline in
membership as manufacturers avoided unionization and took advantage of less
expensive labor by moving shops from the urban centers in the northeast to the
south, and later abroad. The ethnic and racial character of the ILGWU also changed
as European immigrants were supplanted by Asians, Latin Americans, African-
Americans, and immigrants from the Caribbean.
In July 1995 the ILGWU merged with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union
(ACTWU) at a joint convention, forming UNITE (Union of Needletrades, Industrial and
Textile Employees). At the time the new union had a membership of about 250,000 in
the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico.