International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU)
Founded in 1900 in New York City, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) was remarkably successful in forcing adoption of sanitary codes and safety regulations and achieving better pay during the first two decades of the 20th century. Comprising mostly women immigrants, the organization flourished in eastern cities, though there were local unions elsewhere. The majority of early members were Jewish and Italian, establishing a pattern for the garment trade to be dominated by the newest immigrants. The union’s greatest early successes were the “Uprising of 1909,” in which 20,000 shirtwaist makers staged a 14-week strike, and the “Great Revolt,” which saw 60,000 garment workers win “The Protocol of Peace.” The organization, increasingly an owners’ union, continued to function under the original name, providing clear working standards and impartial arbitration of grievances. In 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, in which 146 workers died as flames engulfed an unsafe and unaffiliated workshop, focused national attention on the plight of garment workers. In the same year, the Independent Cloakmakers Union of Toronto became the first Canadian union to affiliate with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.
In 1914, a similar organization known as the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA) was formed, with an affiliated branch established in Montreal in 1917. In 1976, the ACWA merged with the Textile Workers Union of America to form the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, which in turn merged with the ILGWU in 1995 to form the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE), representing more than 250,000 American and Canadian workers. By the 1980s, union membership was largely from the Caribbean Basin, South America, and East Asia. International visibility of the garment trade was once again heightened in 1996, with revelations of sweatshop conditions found in the manufacture of television personality Kathie Lee Gifford’s clothing line. Throughout the late 20th and early 21st century, UNITE took an increasingly activist role in international politics, joining with environmental and student groups to protest international working conditions and the policies of such international economic groups as the World Trade Organization.