Op-Ed: What Today’s Garment Workers Can Learn From Yesterday’s Unions

Daniel Katz |
Author: Daniel Katz
Publisher: NYU Press
Publication Date: Nov. 2011

Today’s garment workers are facing the same troubles that European immigrants successfully tackled two generations ago. Back then, unions improved conditions by engaging in a meaningful way in people’s lives beyond the factory floor.

Of the 33,000 sewing machine operators, fabricators and laborers currently employed in Manhattan’s Garment District and Chinatown, in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, and other neighborhoods, most make far below minimum wage. They work 10 to 12 hours a day, six days a week and the overwhelmingly immigrant workforce is routinely paid by the piece and cheated out of overtime. It is a vulnerable group of workers, made up primarily of Chinese and Latino women. Many live and work in the United States without documents — fearful of detection, arrest and deportation.

The vulnerability of these sweatshop workers is compounded by the sad decline of the so-called “needle trades” unions: the once very powerful International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) and Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA) now exist as diminished local chapters. Their successor organizations — UNITE-HERE and Workers United — are products of failed attempts to merge and reignite the labor movement.

The unions are losing members, money and political clout. New York’s sweatshop workers, divided by race and ethnicity, live under the threat of reprisal by a hostile government. With no union to turn to, they have little hope.

But perhaps these workers can learn lessons in solidarity from history.

In the early 1920s, a number of world events precipitated the xenophobic Red Scare in the United States: the Russian Revolution, a wave of post-World War I international labor strikes and isolated anarchist bombings targeting U.S. officials and businessmen.

Unions need to ‘occupy,’ if you will, the lives of immigrant workers, and invite them to occupy the union in return.

The government cracked down on immigrants — deporting thousands, closing ethnic newspapers, enacting far-reaching restrictions on new arrivals and targeting labor unions, which were then the touchstones of immigrant power.

In the 1930s, Latino members of New York Dressmakers’ Local 22 hosted cultural events such as this Flamenco dance performance. Photo courtesy of The Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation & Archives at Cornell University.

In New York, garment manufacturers hoped to undermine unions by hiring black and Puerto Rican workers — an attempt to splinter the existing workforce, which was mostly made up of Russian Jews and Italians. By the beginning of the Great Depression, sweatshop conditions and starvation returned as the norm in the garment industry.

But factory owners did not recognize immigrant Jews’ profound respect for other ethnicities. Key Russian-Jewish union leaders had cut their teeth as part of resistance movements against the Czar, who employed similar “divide and conquer” tactics to quash political dissent. In Russia the labor movement stayed strong by banding together — Jews fought equally as hard for workers rights as they did to preserve ethnic and cultural identity.

Thousands of union members participated in a wide-ranging athletic program like this track and field day in July 1937. These three winners of the basketball throw are, left to right: third place winner Lillian Biegel, second place winner Dorothy Tucker and first place winner Janet York. Photo courtesy of The Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation & Archives at Cornell University.

New York’s garment unions built a loyal and powerful membership throughout the 1930s. Tens of thousands of people — of all races and ethnicities, immigrants and native-born, women, men and children — came to weekly classes, sporting events, dances, musical performances and festivals celebrating their diverse cultures. They were a constant and powerful presence in the city. Politicians and employers took them seriously and for decades the union won living wages and benefits for their members.

How Unions Can Be More Relevant for Garment Workers Today

History does not necessarily repeat itself but there are patterns in history that can be very useful to study, especially to inform creative new responses to old ideas. Today’s unions can rebound by engaging with the communities in which today’s documented and undocumented immigrants who toil in the sweatshops live, worship and socialize. Unions can build trust by involving themselves in the ethnic community lives of their members, expanding the definition of what a union member is to include family members and community allies, and developing union leadership from them.

In 1934, the New York Dressmakers’ Local 22 proudly announced the 32 distinct "nationalities" among its members, comprising a "union of many cultures." Photo courtesy of The Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation & Archives at Cornell University.

Unions need to enlist the support — and at times hire as organizers — clergy, school teachers, local business owners and the documented family members of undocumented workers.

Unions need to partner with churches and other houses of worship to create new sanctuaries of organizing.

Unions need to appeal to ethnic newspapers and radio shows, recruit at the hundreds of Sunday soccer games in parks throughout the city, be present at and co-sponsor when possible every ethnic festival that draws garment workers.

In short, unions need to “occupy,” if you will, the lives of immigrant workers, and invite them to occupy the union in return. If history is a guide, these workers will not disappoint.

Daniel Katz is associate professor of history and chairs the master’s program in policy studies at Empire State College, which is part of the SUNY system. A former union organizer, he is a member of the board of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice in New York City.

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