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The ILGWU’s High Holidays Strike

A century of industry and immigrants in Paris and New York
Nancy L. Green
Duke University Press Durham & London 1997
by Nancy L. Green

The International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) was founded in 1900 directly under the aegis of the AFL. The union organized its first general strike in July 1901, in which it sought to sign contracts not only with the small contractors but with the large manufacturers as well. Its aim from the beginning was to make the latter more responsible for conditions in this "curiously disorganized trade."

The pre-World War I period is marked in American women's garment-industry memory by four major events: two strikes, a collective agreement, and a tragic fire. The "Uprising of the 20,000," "The Great Revolt," the Protocol of Peace, and the Triangle Fire all reveal the disgruntlement over chaotic labor conditions, attempts at industrial regulation, and the continued impunity of many of the early clothing manufacturers.

The 1909-10 strike, in a branch where 80 percent of the workers were women, 55 percent of the women Jewish, 35 percent Italian, and 7 percent native-born Americans, had begun over the issue of whether the company union at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company (the Triangle Employees Benevolent Association) would distribute ten dollars in aid to needy families as the Jewish high holidays approached. The company refused, and the (mostly Jewish) workers at Triangle turned to the umbrella organization of United Hebrew Trades for help.

Neither the ILGWU nor the WTUL were prepared, but they became active organizers as the strike spread beyond ethnic issues and became a symbol for labor demands in general and for women's activism in particular. According to one estimate that counted as many as 30,000 strikers, 21,000 of them were Jewish women, 2,000 Italian women, 1,000 American women, and 6,000 men. It was a dirty fight, "marked by assaults of gorillas, illtreatment of police, hunger and heroism of the embattled workers." The company used prostitutes to taunt the strikers, thugs to beat them up, and the police to bully them. Hundreds of people were arrested, including Mary Dreier, the middle-class president of the WTUL. The strike itself was only moderately successful. Many small manufacturers signed separate contracts, while many of the larger manufacturers never signed at all and refused to recognize the union.

The waist-makers' strike paved the way for some 50 to 60,000 (mostly male) cloak-makers who followed their example several months later. The "Great Revolt" of the summer of 1910 was better planned and more successful in attempting to curtail "deplorable industrial chaos." The employers finally settled, thanks to effective mediation by A. Lincoln Filene and Louis D. Brandeis. A "Protocol of Peace" was signed on September 2,1910, by the ILGWU and the Cloak, Suit, and Skirt Manufacturers' Protective Association.

The Protocol's very name was testimony to the depths of the strife just ended. The agreement called for a 50-hour week (five 9-hour days plus 5 hours on the sixth day), the abolition of homework, minimum-wage scales, and a "preferential shop" (in which "union men" [sic] were preferred). A Joint Board of Sanitary Control, a Board of Arbitration for major disputes, and a Committee of Grievances for smaller problems were set up. Similar protocols were signed shortly thereafter for the dress-and-waist, housedress, and other garment specialties. By early 1912, the ILGWU'S New York Joint Board of Cloak, Suit, and Skirt Makers' Unions had signed contracts with 1,796 out of 1,829 New York shops.

A century of industry and immigrants in Paris and New York
Nancy L. Green
Duke University Press Durham & London 1997)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, is there any relationship between A. Lincoln Filene (one of the mediators in the dispute) and Edward A. Filene? The Hillman building at 500 Grand is named after Edward A. Filene. The Hillman building at 550 Grand is named after the other mediator, Louis D. Brandeis.

9/06/2006 1:41 PM  
Anonymous Yori said...

I didn't know that. Will research and let you know when i get a cghance.


9/08/2006 11:02 AM  

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