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Adventures in Jewish Studies

The Association for Jewish Studies Podcast

Episode 31: Yiddish Socialists and the Garment Industry


Avishay Artsy: Welcome to Adventures in Jewish Studies, the podcast of the Association for Jewish Studies. In every episode, we take you on an entertaining and intellectual journey about Jewish life, history and culture, with the help of some of the world’s leading Jewish studies scholars. I’m your host for this episode, Avishay Artsy.

Take a look through your closet, and you’ll likely see on the tags that most of your clothes were not made in the USA. Maybe they were made in China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, or Malaysia. That’s not surprising. Most clothing nowadays is made in factories in countries where workers are paid less and have fewer protections.

But a century ago, any clothing that you didn’t make yourself would have been produced locally. For a long time, that process was overwhelmingly dominated by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. And they brought their radical politics to the workplace.

Daniel Katz: The American labor movement has an underappreciated root in the Jewish labor movement, that itself was inspired by a very particular form of cultural socialism that developed in the Russian empire. And the Jewish immigrants who came to the United States after the Russian Revolution, 1905, around that period, began to invigorate and found new institutions within Jewish socialism that led to the rise of one of the most powerful unions in American history. 

Avishay Artsy: This is Daniel Katz. 

Daniel Katz: I am an adjunct professor of history at the City University of New York School of Labor and Urban Studies. 

Avishay Artsy: And he's the author of All Together Different: Yiddish Socialists, Garment Workers and the Labor Roots of Multiculturalism.

In his book, Katz explains that when Jewish garment workers went on strike, the factory owners – many of them also Jewish – brought in strikebreakers of other ethnicities. The union organizers responded in a way the manufacturers didn’t expect.

Daniel Katz: You know, they do something quite remarkable, which is rather than fight and vilify blacks and Puerto Ricans who are being brought into the industry as strikebreakers, they seek to organize them into the union.

Avishay Artsy: In this episode of Adventures in Jewish Studies, we’ll look at how a Jewish-led garment worker union created a multiethnic coalition, inspired policies that still benefit workers today, and changed the model for labor organizing in America.

Up until the mid-nineteenth century most clothing was handmade.

Caroline Luce: Garment manufacturing was a very small industry, isolated mostly to port cities. Most of what they were making was custom suits and dresses for the elite and work clothes, often for enslaved folks. So there really wasn't a market for what we think of today, clothes you'd buy off the rack, known as ready-made clothing, until the mid-nineteenth century.

Avishay Artsy: This is Caroline Luce. She’s the project director at the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California Los Angeles. 

Caroline Luce: I research on and write about and teach about radical Jews in early-twentieth-century L.A. I also teach a class on the history of garment workers and their struggles for our labor studies major at UCLA. And I do a lot of work with the Garment Worker Center here in Los Angeles.

Avishay Artsy: She’s also writing a book called Yiddish in the Land of Sunshine: Jewish Radicalism, Labor and Culture in Los Angeles.

The mid-nineteenth century saw big changes in fashion. Clothes were produced en masse. The shirtwaist, or woman’s blouse, came into fashion. And the production of most clothing moved from the household to the factory.

By the late-nineteenth century, the garment industry was thriving. Between 1880 and 1890, the financial value of the industry doubled. Workers in the garment industry formed local unions, just like carpenters, cigar makers, shoemakers, mill workers and other professions. Union members in these skilled trades remained overwhelmingly native-born White Protestant males. 

During that same time frame, nearly a quarter of a million Jews fled pogroms in Russia and found their way to America. Many found work in the garment industry.

Caroline Luce: By the turn of the twentieth century, 75 percent of the workforce in the garment industry is Jewish… Every part of this supply chain – textile traders, manufacturers, workers and distributors – was Jewish, and Jews were a big part of the consumer base. You buy new clothing when you go to a new country. And so Jewish immigrants were often the consumers there as well.

Avishay Artsy: The workers belonged to local unions. But their power was limited. So in 1900, delegates from seven local unions from America’s largest garment centers – New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Newark – met to form a new organization.

Daniel Katz: These seven garment unions came together under the auspices of the United Hebrew Trades, which was a Jewish group that organized Jews to bring them into the American Federation of Labor, and they decided to form an international union. This was aspirational at the time since it was only a handful of cities, but it was a few thousand garment workers.

Avishay Artsy: They called it the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, or I-L-G-W-U.

A quick note here. The word “ladies” in the union’s name refers to the “ladies’ garments” made by its members, not the workers themselves, who were women and men. The workers who made men’s clothes were represented by another union, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America.

Daniel Katz: They aspire to organize the very, very quickly growing garment industry that was developing in the United States, but principally in New York City, among hundreds of thousands and eventually millions of Jewish immigrants who were coming into the United States.

Avishay Artsy: The ILGWU was an industrial union, meaning it covered all workers in the industry, rather than a craft union that only covered workers who did one specific task within the industry. At first the union counted about two thousand members. Mostly Jewish workers, some Italians, and nearly all men. These men worked in what were called “inside shops.”

Caroline Luce: These were garment manufacturers owned by the major retailers who would design their own lines, have their own stores and their own production facilities.

Avishay Artsy: These facilities didn't make everything themselves. They often subcontracted parts of the process out to specialty shops, like ones that just make sleeves. Some of that production was farmed out to people working at home.

Caroline Luce: These were women. They would be given a bunch of fabric by a contractor with a specific assignment and sent to make it at home. They were paid by the number of pieces they finished and brought back. It was often the kind of fiddliest parts of the process, so lots of lace or sewing hems, anything that was done by hand, later adding zippers, embroidery, buttons, things like that. 

Avishay Artsy: It was known as homework or piecework, it did not pay well, and it was mostly done by working mothers with the help of their young children. The factory owners would sometimes use these women as strikebreakers when the men were on strike. So the men who ran the unions saw these women as a threat.

Caroline Luce: So basically what emerges is this kind of two tiered system. There are mostly male tailors, highly skilled tailors, in inside shops, gradually recognizing their power, forming unions… At the other end of the spectrum are mostly working mothers, working in the home, who are not recognized as tailors and therefore left out of these unions.

Avishay Artsy: Younger women found work in inside shops. They also faced discrimination.

Caroline Luce: They were often very young, 12, 14, 16 year olds, and they were doing the most deskilled parts of the process, which is to say they're working on machines. Their male coworkers did not regard them as craftspeople. And they use this language of “pin girls,” that these were just kind of silly young things who were only there to earn some extra pin money so they could buy ribbons for their hair or whatever. It's a temporary thing for them. Their expectation is they're going to go get married. And so they were very much excluded.

Avishay Artsy: A new group was formed to advocate for working women. In 1903, white, middle-class, mostly Christian, women created the Women's Trade Union League.

Daniel Katz: The Women's Trade Union League organized women to push their way into unions that were dominated by men but didn't have a particular interest in organizing women. 

Avishay Artsy: One activist in the league was Rose Schneiderman. She was a Jewish socialist, born in Poland. At 13 she began working as a seamstress in a hat-making factory. She organized her first union at 21. And she was a firebrand.

Caroline Luce: She's four foot nine, this tiny little woman. Apparently, she had, like, electric red hair, but she was absolutely blessed with the gift of gab. So that very famous phrase, “bread and roses,” is her turn of phrase, and it really speaks to what she was trying to achieve for immigrant women specifically, but for women in the garment industry broadly, which was that it's not just about wanting to eat. We should have access to the beautiful things in life. We should have access to culture, to roses, to family life, to enrichment, to education and all those kinds of things.

Avishay Artsy: Schneiderman saw the value of working with upper-class progressives on labor issues. She convinced the Women's Trade Union League to fight for public education, so that the children of garment workers would have somewhere to go all day, freeing up their mothers to seek higher-paid work in factories and as union members.

Schneiderman recruited other women to help her, including Pauline Newman. Born in Lithuania, at the age of eight Newman began working at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York’s Greenwich Village. By 17, she was a socialist and had organized one of the largest rent strikes in the city’s history. Newman became the first woman to work full-time for the ILGWU, and worked there for seventy years.

Schneiderman also recruited Fannia Cohn, born in what’s today Belarus. She was a sleevemaker who started her own local union. She helped organize Chicago dressmakers and became the first female vice president of the ILGWU, and secretary of the union’s education department. Cohn was a lifelong proponent of education as a means of fighting gender and racial inequality.

Those three women – Rose Schneiderman, Pauline Newman, and Fannia Cohn – played key roles in a series of spontaneous strikes that began in 1909 and targeted factories making shirtwaists.

Daniel Katz: This was the largest industry within ladies’ garments centered in New York. Nearly 40,000 mostly young immigrant women worked in this industry, half of whom worked in sweatshops, these tenement workshops of ten or even 20 people, crowded into apartments or basements, and then another half were in modern factories that were developing around this time.

Avishay Artsy: The strikes first centered around the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, the largest of the shirtwaist factories. Management fought back viciously.

Daniel Katz: The owners of the Triangle factory hired gangs, hired goons, to beat up the striking women, famously hired prostitutes to actually pick fights with the striking women. And then the police who were under the system of Tammany Hall, which is the corrupt political system that ran the politics of New York City and New York State, the police were paid off to go in and arrest the women who were on strike, not the people who were provoking the fights. And hundreds of women were dragged into court. And they were sent to Blackwell Island, now Roosevelt Island, where there was a workhouse, a prison. And they had sentences that lasted up to a month, often forced to work in sewing shops, ironically, in prison.

Avishay Artsy: Despite the anti-union tactics, calls grew for a general strike that would completely shut down production in the shirtwaist industry. A mass meeting with representatives from 500 separate shirtwaist factories was held at Cooper Union in November of 1909.

Daniel Katz: And very famously, this Russian revolutionary woman, Clara Lemlich, got up after having been beaten up on the picket line and demanded access to a stage that was dominated by men, and the crowd demanded that she get to speak. She got up and she called for a strike and the strike was on.

Avishay Artsy: Lemlich, then 23 years old and a seasoned organizer, delivered the rousing speech in Yiddish. Here’s actress Caitlin Belforti performing a reenactment.

Caitlin Belforti as Clara Lemlich: “I am one of those that have suffered abuses and intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in general terms.” [applause] “What we are here to decide is whether we shall strike or not strike!” [crowd chants “Strike!”]

Avishay Artsy: More than 20,000 workers participated in the strike. 90 percent were Jewish and 70 percent were women. They demanded better wages, shorter hours, and safer workplaces, including protections against unwanted sexual advances and threats. It was called the Uprising of the 20,000. And it was the largest strike by women to date in American history. 

Daniel Katz: It really was the moment in which the International Ladies Garment Workers Union really became a force within the industry. 

Avishay Artsy: Members of the Women’s Trade Union League helped set up strike funds, bailed the workers out of jail, boycotted the clothing manufacturers who refused to sign union contracts, and marched alongside the striking workers. They included students from women’s colleges, and some very famous and wealthy women.

Daniel Katz: Like Anne Morgan, the daughter of J.P. Morgan, the financier, the most powerful, richest capitalist in the world. His daughter was walking the picket line in her mink coat to support these young immigrant women. 

Avishay Artsy: After eleven weeks, a majority of New York shirtwaist companies were ready to sign contracts. Members of the Women’s Trade Union League pressured Rose Schneiderman and other union organizers to settle the strike. About a thousand workers were still on the picket line when the general strike was called off in February of 1910. 

Caroline Luce: And they won. Over 350 shops in New York signed contracts. They won paid holidays, a 52 hour workweek, which I know still sounds really long, but that was an improvement at the time. And out of it, they formed their own union. So Local 25, ILG Local 25 became a shirtwaist makers’ local. It had 750 members in 1908, before the strike, and after the strike 50,000 members. So it really showed what was possible and the ILGW in that way became the vanguard of organizing women workers across the United States. They changed the expectations of what immigrant women were capable of. They showed they could win. They showed they would be great trade unionists if you incorporated them.

Avishay Artsy: By the end of the strike, 85 percent of all shirtwaist makers in New York were members of the ILGWU.

Even though the union had pressured hundreds of factories to sign a union contract, the biggest holdout was the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. The strikers knew the factory was unsafe and they had demanded improvements. The floors were cramped with long tables and bulky machines. The floors were oily. There were wicker baskets piled high with scraps of fabric.

Daniel Katz: It was filthy, it was overcrowded, it was dangerous.

Avishay Artsy: There had been at least two fires at the factory already.

Daniel Katz: And the way they suppressed the fire was they had buckets of water sitting on windowsills. And they would douse the flames. But they didn't have sprinklers. That technology existed. Other buildings did. But they refused to put them in. 

Avishay Artsy: In March of 1911, a devastating fire tore through the factory, just as employees were getting ready to leave for the day.

Daniel Katz: The doors were locked. So when the fire started, these women couldn't get out. The doors were locked to prevent them from talking to union organizers, to have union organizers come into the shop. Also to keep the women from stealing needles and thread and even shirtwaists that they created. Most of these women would have to work a week or more to buy a shirtwaist that they actually made. 

Avishay Artsy: The rusty fire escape collapsed, and the fire ladders couldn’t reach the top floors. It was one of the worst industrial accidents in U.S. history. 146 people died either in the fire or by jumping from the windows. These were mostly young immigrant women. About two thirds were Jewish and a third were Italian, which reflected the makeup of the industry. There was a massive outpouring of rage and grief.

Daniel Katz: There was a funeral procession about a week later that went up Fifth Avenue in which The New York Times reported that the police reported that over 400,000 people either marched in a silent procession up Fifth Avenue or stood on the sidewalks to watch. This was an amazing thing when you think that New York City only had a population of 4 million people. One in ten New Yorkers were in that funeral.

Avishay Artsy: A week after the fire, the Women's Trade Union League met at the Metropolitan Opera House – which Anne Morgan had paid to rent out - to decide how to respond. The union organizer Rose Schneiderman was a member of the league. She also knew women who’d died in the Triangle fire. And she was angry at Anne Morgan and other league members who pushed the striking workers to settle, even though Triangle hadn’t folded. 

Daniel Katz: And she got up and she spoke in a very well-covered meeting of thousands of people. The New York press was there, politicians were there. And she said, I'm not here to talk good fellowship. We have found you good people in the public wanting. She really blamed Anne Morgan and others for being too timid, too cautious.

Avishay Artsy: Schneiderman and others demanded that laws be passed to prevent another tragedy like the Triangle fire from ever happening again.

Caroline Luce: This kind of community coalition comes together. It includes rabbis, it includes union leaders, it includes middle-class women reformers who all put pressure on the state and local government in New York to do something.

Avishay Artsy: A commission was formed to investigate those working conditions and propose new laws.

Daniel Katz: And over the course of the next two years, they voted on something like 36 factory laws, safety laws, and about 33 were passed. It was really incredible. A lot of the issues that came out of the fire were addressed in law. And they created new mechanisms to enforce those laws. 

Caroline Luce: So out of tragedy come some of the first, most important health and safety interventions in New York's history and really in the history of the country.

Avishay Artsy: Those New York activists and lawmakers went on to national prominence… authoring New Deal era legislation that included laws for minimum wage, the eight-hour workday, social security benefits, and the right of workers to form unions.

Daniel Katz: The kind of power that the union and particularly these individual women build, that affects the shape of how we see the state and what we demand from the state through the twentieth century into the twenty-first. 

Avishay Artsy: These were all ripple effects of the organizing work done by radical young immigrant women who fought for the rights of garment workers.

ILGWU Anthem:

One battle is won, but the fight's just begun,

And the union's flag unfurled;

United, we're strong; let us march t'ward the dawn

Of a brave, new workers' world.

Oh, Union of the Garment Workers,

To you we ever will be true;

We'll build and we'll fight, and we'll rise in our might

With the ILGWU!

Avishay Artsy: While the ILGWU membership was about two-thirds Jewish, one-third Italian, it didn’t stay that way for long. 

African-Americans, making their way from the South during the Great Migration, began to account for a greater share of garment workers, along with Puerto Ricans.

Jewish organizers had to find ways to make new workers feel included. This is a time when most unions were segregated.

Daniel Katz: And it's a really remarkable thing that the ILGW was able to organize in what was an increasingly multicultural environment. The reason why they were able to do that, I argue in my book, is that these, some men, but largely women, come out of a particular context in Russia, a particular revolutionary context.

Avishay Artsy: Russian Jews at the time were divided between two nationalist movements, both founded in 1897 but with very different aims: Zionism and Bundism.

Daniel Katz: The Zionists are very much a pro-European capitalist vision of maintaining a Jewish national society somewhere, maintaining the class divisions that exist. The Bundists, which are much larger at this point, and mostly focused in the Russian empire, have a vision of overthrowing the czar, overthrowing capitalism that the czarist regime has embraced.  And doing so within the Russian empire means doing so within a vast multicultural empire. 

Avishay Artsy: The empire included over 100 separate ethnic groups, with distinct cultures and languages. But Russian language, Russian identity, and the Russian Orthodox Church dominated.

Daniel Katz: The way that the Russian czar maintains power over this vast empire is by disparaging and diminishing these other ethnic groups. No group is more vulnerable than Jews. They're the largest ethnic group that has no territory of their own. 

Avishay Artsy: During this time, Russian Jews developed a new ethnic identity that was class-based, revolutionary, and focused on lifting up Jewish culture. This is expressed in Yiddish folk tales of the villages and shtetls from writers like Sholem Aleichem and S. Ansky. Russian Jewish immigrants to America at the turn of the nineteenth century brought that worldview with them.

Daniel Katz: They're younger, they're more militant, they're more radical. They're really invigorating all the social movements on the Lower East Side and throughout the Jewish diaspora in the United States, including the unions. 

Avishay Artsy: And so they began to create structures within the union to celebrate their ethnic cultures, just as they had in Russia.

Daniel Katz: There's a woman named Fannia Cohn. And she sets up the education departments in the ILGWU. And she sets out for the next 50 years to write and to push for and to demand funds and resources to be able to build education programs that are not just about the nuts and bolts of building and operating a union. But it's about propagating Yiddish ideology, culture and socialist ideology.

Avishay Artsy: Cohn’s education programs were open to workers and their families. There were classes in history, literature and philosophy, music and dance performances, and other opportunities for people to share and explore their cultures within a militant union context.

The union also made its mark in the performing arts. In the 30s, it sponsored a satirical musical revue called Pins and Needles. It starred an amateur cast of garment workers. The union’s educational department produced it to entertain strikers on picket lines. It became an unexpected Broadway smash. 

“It’s Better with a Union Man” from Pins and Needles:

Oh, it’s better with a union man!

It’s better with a union man!

You’ll live to regret if you ever forget

This motto proletarian!

So, always be upon your guard!

Demand to see a union card!

Avishay Artsy: It ran from 1937 until 1940 and was the longest running Broadway musical until Oklahoma! in 1943. 

“It’s Better with a Union Man” from Pins and Needles:

You’ll never go wrong if you follow this plan.

It’s better with a union man!

Avishay Artsy: But as this is all happening, garment factory owners, including Jewish employers, saw the union become more powerful throughout the 1920s and 30s. They saw Jews espousing socialism, Italians preaching anarchism, and they started to look for workers elsewhere.

Daniel Katz: And they encourage blacks who are now migrating through the Great Migration in the 1910s and 1920s, who are coming up north, and they're starting to hire blacks, particularly when Jews and Italians go on strike. They'll hire blacks as strikebreakers. And also, Puerto Ricans. 

Avishay Artsy: After the Spanish-American War in 1898, Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory, and in 1917, on the eve of the U.S. entering World War One, Puerto Ricans were made citizens and men were drafted into the military. They also were not subject to immigration restrictions passed in the 1920s.

Daniel Katz: What the union does is really remarkable in the 1920s. And Fannia Cohn and David Dubinsky, who becomes president of the ILGWU in 1932, people like Sasha Zimmermann, another Russian revolutionary who had immigrated in the 1910s, they do something quite remarkable, which is rather than fight and vilify blacks and Puerto Ricans who are being brought into the industry as strikebreakers, they seek to organize them into the union. 

Avishay Artsy: The ILGWU gained support from black workers after the endorsement of A. Philip Randolph, a Black socialist organizer and founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first successful African-American-led labor union. Randolph had moved from Florida to New York and had taken classes alongside militant revolutionary young garment workers.

Daniel Katz: And so there's a relationship that develops between Randolph and the garment workers union. They helped to fund the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union. And he really helps to legitimize the ILGWU when they're going out to organize black workers.

Avishay Artsy: ILGWU membership declined in the 20s and early 30s, the period between World War One and the Great Depression, until Sasha Zimmermann, the Yiddish socialist organizer, led a successful strike of over 30,000 dressmakers and revitalized the union. He built on Fannia Cohn’s efforts in multicultural organizing.

Daniel Katz: He really takes this to the next level and he opens up all these education and cultural programming for all the ethnic members of the dressmakers, in particular – in the ILGWU.

Avishay Artsy: Zimmerman conducted a census of the 30,000 members of the union.

Daniel Katz: And they publish it and they say, we have people of 32 separate nationalities. And they list the numbers and there's something like 19,000 Jews in that local. There's 2500 Negroes – that's the term of the day, African Americans, black Caribbeans. 1700 Spanish speakers. They rank it all the way down to one Chinese, one Malay, and one Hindu. 

Avishay Artsy: The union celebrated these different nationalities in the 1934 May Day Parade. Members marched in clothes that showed off their ethnic origins.

Daniel Katz: A lot of European peasant costumes, Mexican, Spanish, Caribbean. They are demonstrating their pride in their ethnic cultures and ethnic diversity. And in turn the members respond. They respond. Their families respond. Tens of thousands of them join choruses and orchestras and theater groups, and they found newspapers and they go to art classes. And it's this explosion of all sorts of arts and culture and thought.

Avishay Artsy: These educational and cultural activities helped the union grow to 100,000 members. The celebration of their diversity, put on public view in concerts and pageants at Carnegie Hall and Madison Square Garden, earned them political capital as well. When a new contract was up for dressmakers in 1936, manufacturers gave in without the union even needing to go on strike.

Daniel Katz: They saw how not just once, but all year round, and year after year, thousands and thousands of union members and their allies in other unions, in the socialist movement, readers of the Jewish Daily Forward, members of the Workmen's Circle. There really is this enormous public presence and the old ways that employers used to divide workers by race, by ethnicity, did not apply. And they knew it. And for the first time in 50 years, they had a major contract signed without having to go on strike, just the threat of it. 

Avishay Artsy: The union took a similar approach to organizing on the West coast. Manufacturers had begun moving operations to LA to avoid the power of the East Coast unions. LA was traditionally an anti-union town. The growth of Hollywood in the 1910s and 20s and the need for costume designers fueled the garment industry.

Caroline Luce: Whereas union density in New York had gotten up to like 85 percent, which is to say 85 percent of the workers in the industry were union members. Here in Los Angeles, it was 5 percent. There was no union density.

Avishay Artsy: The local union was dominated by a small percentage of highly-skilled men who worked as tailors, furriers, and cloak and suit makers. But the majority of the workers were Mexican women, along with Chinese and Japanese women, who made dresses. The union shut them out.

A young New York organizer, Rose Pesotta, requested that the union send her to LA to organize the dress makers. 

ILGWU president David Dubinsky agreed to send Pesotta to LA.

Caroline Luce: One of the first things she does is she starts a union labor hour on Spanish-language radio. She starts a newspaper in Spanish and English. She also does a whole bunch of house visits to try to understand their needs and experiences. So all these strategies are really born of the Jewish radicals’ use of Yiddish in an earlier generation of organizing, is how I see it. And an expression of that multiculturalism, where they realize the importance of language and culture, they realize the importance of meeting workers where they are. 

Avishay Artsy: After six months of grassroots organizing, Pesotta decided that the women were ready to strike.

Caroline Luce: Like in New York during the Uprising of 20,000, they face rampant police violence. People are getting their asses kicked, they're getting arrested. And it gets so bad that actually a group of ministers and rabbis in L.A. start calling for arbitration. 

Avishay Artsy: The dressmakers got a settlement that forced the manufacturers to follow national labor standards. And the women got to form their own local union chapter.

Caroline Luce: The executive board is composed, 15 of 17 members are women, and at least eight of those women are women of Mexican descent. So that's a huge victory to Rose. And I think that that's a really important kind of moment in the timeline of the union opening itself up to new sectors of the workforce.

Avishay Artsy: Pesotta went on to serve as vice-president of the ILGWU. But she resigned in 1944 out of frustration with the rampant sexism she experienced as the sole woman on the union’s general executive board.

The ILGWU’s heyday was undoubtedly in the middle of the twentieth century. The union played a critical role in both the New Deal policies of the 1930s and the Great Society programs of the 1960s, and became a leader in government reform at the national, state and local level. They fought for civil rights and immigration reform in the 1950s and 60s. But they also got caught up in intra-left battles between communists and socialists.

Daniel Katz: The socialist leadership of the ILG support the American government in the Vietnam War, for example. It's part of their anti-communist socialism that looks an awful lot like mainstream liberalism.

Avishay Artsy: An alternative leftist movement, known as the New Left, emerged, and the ILGWU’s power and influence diminished. But the real death blow of the union, and of the garment industry, was offshoring. Trade agreements signed after World War Two allowed manufacturers to move jobs overseas without paying tariffs. 

Starting in the 1970s, the union took their plight to the airwaves, running national ads to “look for the union label.”

Look for the Union Label 1978 ILGWU ad: “There used to be more of us in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union. But a lot of our jobs have disappeared. A lot of the clothes Americans are buying for women and kids are imports. They're being made in foreign places. When the work is done here, we can support our families and pay our taxes and buy the things other Americans make. That's what it means when the label says union.”

SINGING: “Look for the union label! / When you are buying / A coat, dress, or blouse! / Remember somewhere / Our union’s sewing / Our wages going / To feed the kids / And run the house!”

Avishay Artsy: These ads were a major investment for the union. And rather than resorting to racism and nativism, the messaging stayed positive.

The commercials were so ubiquitous, and the jingle so well-known, that it was parodied on Saturday Night Live in 1977 in a fake commercial for the American Dope Growers Union:

SNL parody ad: “Every time you buy pot from Mexico or Colombia, you’re putting an American out of work. We of the American Dope Growers Union support ourselves by growing marijuana in American soil.”

SINGING: “So look for the union label…”

Avishay Artsy: The “look for the union label” song became an anthem for the labor movement more broadly. But it couldn’t stop the disappearance of union jobs.

Caroline Luce: As early as 1974, the density of the local has dropped to 15 percent. By 1992, even though there are almost 100,000, 120,000 garment workers in Los Angeles, the union density is down to 2 percent, less than 2,000 members. And that is fewer members than when Rose Pesotta first arrived in 1933. So it's absolutely a crisis. And in the absence of the union, classic sweatshop conditions return. 

Avishay Artsy: The ILGWU officially disbanded in 1995, under the leadership of its final president, Jay Mazur. It merged with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union to form the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, or UNITE. In 2004, that union merged with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union to form UNITE HERE.

Efforts to organize garment workers continue to this day. But the industry has largely moved out of the country.

Caroline Luce: In 1961, only 4 percent of the clothes sold in the United States were made outside of the United States. By 1995, 60 percent of the clothes sold in the United States were imported. And today it is almost 90 to 95 percent.

Avishay Artsy: Developments in technology, starting in the 1960s, also sped up the outsourcing of jobs abroad.

Daniel Katz: Just to fast forward to today, you as a designer can create a design in your laptop computer and send it in an instant to Southeast Asia. And you could have clothes manufactured and shipped back by plane to the United States within days. So, we have a just-in-time global production chain that, you know, has really destroyed the industry, by and large. 

Avishay Artsy: But even as the garment industry in the US has suffered, the legacy of the ILGWU lives on. The labor movement is in a moment of resurgence. Hollywood writers and actors, auto workers, nurses, teachers, flight attendants, Amazon employees and Starbucks baristas have all joined the picket lines or are preparing to do so. A 2022 Gallup poll found that seven in ten Americans viewed unions favorably. It’s the highest degree of support since 1965. Daniel Katz says the current generation of organizers understands, like the Yiddish socialists of a century ago, that class and culture have to go hand in hand for a social movement to succeed.

Daniel Katz: The Amazon workers that organized in Staten Island a few years ago, take a look at how they organize. They use ethnic music and food. These are tried and true strategies. I think it's an important worldview that there seems to be a lot of reception to thinking about.

Avishay Artsy: “Adventures in Jewish Studies” is made possible with generous support from The Salo W. and Jeannette M. Baron Foundation and the Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation. The executive producer of the podcast is Warren Hoffman. I’m the lead producer for this episode.

If you enjoy the podcast, we hope you'll help support it by going to to make a donation. The Association for Jewish Studies is the world’s largest Jewish studies membership organization. It features an annual conference, publications, fellowships and much more for our members. Visit to learn more. See you next time on “Adventures in Jewish Studies”!

Episode Guests


Daniel Katz

Daniel Katz is Interim Associate Director of Worker Education at the Murphy Institute, CUNY. He was Vice President of Academic Affairs at Metropolitan College of New York and Professor of History and Provost of the National Labor College. Katz is the author and editor of numerous books and articles, including his book, All Together Different: Yiddish Socialists, Garment Workers, and the Labor Roots of Multiculturalism, and an anthology called Labor Rising: The Past and Future of Working People in America. He is a contributing editor of Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas, the official journal of the Labor and Working-Class History Association (LAWCHA). He has been an organizer and union representative with the Service Employees International Union, the United Auto Workers, the American Federation of Teachers, and Doctors Council of New York City.


Caroline Luce

Caroline Luce is Project Director with the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment and the Chief Curator of Mapping Jewish LA, a project of the UCLA Leve Center for Jewish Studies. She received her Ph.D. in History from UCLA in 2013 with a focus on immigration, labor and working-class culture in the American west and is working on a book manuscript entitled, Yiddish in the Land of Sunshine: Jewish Radicalism, Labor and Culture in Los Angeles.

Episode Host

Avishay-Artsy-headshot (1)

Avishay Artsy

Avishay Artsy is an audio and print journalist based in Los Angeles and a senior producer of Vox's daily news explainer podcast Today, Explained. He also hosted and produced the podcast Works In Progress at the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture, and produced Design and Architecture at KCRW. His writing has appeared in the Jewish Journal, The Forward, Tablet, JTA, and other publications and news outlets. His audio stories have appeared on NPR's Marketplace, KQED's The California Report, WHYY's The Pulse, PRI's The World, Studio 360 and other outlets. He is also an adjunct professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

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Adventures in Jewish Studies Masthead

Executive Producer: Warren Hoffman, PhD

Producers: Avishay Artsy and Erin Phillips