The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) was founded on June 3, 1900. This union represented workers in the textile industry who made women’s clothing. The union was an "industrial union" which meant it served all workers in the ladies’ garment industry rather than separating by skill set or job.1
Between 1887 and 1892, nearly a quarter of a million Jews fled pogroms in Russia and many of these immigrants would find employment in the garment industry in the United States. The financial value of the industry doubled in the years between 1880 and 1890. Although the garment industry was thriving, the conditions in the factories were abysmal, leading to the origin of the term "sweatshop."2 According to factory worker Clara Lemlich, "we had to endure long hours, low pay, lack of opportunities for advancement, and humiliating treatment from supervisors" and factories were highly unsanitary.3
In 1909 the composition of workers in the garment industry was "80 percent were female, 70 percent were between sixteen and twenty-five years of age, and 65 percent were Russian/Eastern European Jewish."4 The leadership of the union was not representative of the workers. Although 85 percent of the union members were women, the general executive board only ever had one woman at a time. One of these women was Rose Pesotta, who served as vice-president of the ILGWU. She resigned in 1944 as a result of the sexism and tokenism in the executive board.5 Despite the limitations of the time period, many Jewish immigrant women became influential members of the ILGWU. The book Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and Working-Class Politics in the United States, 1900-1965 by Annelise Orleck explores the lives and labor contributions of four of these women.
In 1909, Clara Lemlich gave a speech, in which she said, "I have no further patience for talk. I am a working girl, one of those striking against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in generalities. … I make a motion that we go out in a general strike."6 This speech led to the largest strike of women in the United States up to that time, the "Uprising of 20,000," which lasted from November 22, 1909 to February 15, 1910. The “Uprising of 20,000” strike succeeded in getting many employers to agree to the union members' demands, which included a shortened workweek, retention or rehiring of union workers, and the provision, by employers, of necessary equipment for workers to perform their job.7 Another major strike, the “Great Revolt,” occurred five months after the “Uprising of 20,000” when 50,000-60,000 New York suit and cloak makers, who were mostly men, went on strike.8
In March 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory caught fire and 146 workers died because the doors were kept locked to prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks. After the fire, it was found that workers had never been trained on what to do in case of a fire, and the fire escape was unstable, causing many to realize the need for safer working conditions. As a result, a Factory Investigation Commission was created to investigate factories for fire safety vulnerabilities and overall factory conditions. Members of the ILGWU, including Rose Schneiderman, Pauline Newman, and Clara Lemlich, were members of this committee. Thirty-three laws were passed to improve workplace conditions as a result of these investigations.9
The efforts of these Jewish immigrant women led to safer working conditions for factory workers. Starting in the late 1970s, the clothing industry declined in the U.S. and moved overseas, where production was cheaper.10 Today, the successor to the ILGWU, UNITE HERE serves "hotel, gaming, food service, manufacturing, textile, distribution, laundry, transportation, and airport industries."11
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