International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union

The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union was a workers’ union for the women’s clothing industry that played a major role in the American labor movement in the twentieth century.

The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) was formed in 1900 to represent workers in sweatshops where women’s clothes were manufactured. Its members were mainly immigrant women, particularly Jewish and Italian, but also included men. Most of the factories were concentrated in the garment district of New York City, but the union activities were nationwide. The ILGWU began to make significant strides in organizing when the tragic fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fireTriangle Shirtwaist Company in 1911 killed 146 workers.International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union

During the mid-1920’s, the union suffered from internal disagreements. David Dubinsky, DavidDubinsky assumed the presidency of the union in 1932, when its dues-paying membership had fallen to 32,000. Dubinsky was a Jewish Russian immigrant, who after being arrested in Russia for belonging to a union, had fled to the United States in 1911, become a cloak maker, and joined the ILGWU. While president, he also served as vice president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL).

After the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933, which protected the right of workers to organize, membership in the ILGWU grew, reaching 300,000 at the end of the Great Depression. In 1935, the ILGWU joined the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO; originally the Committee for Industrial Organization). However, in 1938, Dubinsky resigned from the CIO over policy differences and led the ILGWU as an independent union for two years before the union rejoined the AFL. The labor leader again became a vice president of the AFL. After the AFL and CIO merged in 1955, Dubinsky served as a member of the executive board of the AFL-CIOAFL-CIO, energetically fighting against corruption. During World War II, he was instrumental in helping found the American Labor Party but later left because of its communist influence and formed the Liberal Party.

After World War II, the ILGWU lost much of its membership as manufacturers shifted production overseas, and the union’s membership changed from Italians and Jews to Latinos, African Americans, and Asian Americans. However, in the years just after Dubinsky’s retirement in 1966, membership was 450,000. In 1995, the union merged with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) to form the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE). In 2004, UNITE merged with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE) to form UNITE HERE.

Further Reading

  • Daniel, Cletus E. Culture of Misfortune: An Interpretive History of Textile Unionism in the United States. Ithaca, N.Y.: ILR Press, 2001.
  • Parmet, Robert D. The Master of Seventh Avenue: David Dubinsky and the American Labor Movement. New York: New York University Press, 2005.
  • Taylor, Gus. Look for the Union Label: A History of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. Armonk, N.Y.: Sharpe, 1995.


Labor history

Labor strikes

John L. Lewis

Minimum wage laws

Sewing machines

Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire