Story N˚4: The ILGWU and garment workers’ rights

Recently, I was altering a piece of clothing that turned out to be vintage.  What made it vintage for me, more than the style, were the finishing stitches. The construction looked thoughtfully done, and there was extra stitching to make the garment more secure- this helps it last longer.   I don’t know when it was made, probably in the ’50s or ’60s, but inside the garment, I discovered a tiny tag:  International Ladies Garment Workers Union.  And, one of my favorite things to see on a tag: “Made in U.S.A.”

clothing tag measures 7/8"x1 1/8" (2cm x 3cm)
clothing tag measures 7/8″x1 1/8″ (2cm x 3cm)

I don’t see anything like this on clothes tags today. It led me to wonder if there are any garment workers’ unions left. According to wikipedia, this union (ILWGU) was formed in 1900, and was active and growing in its first decade. The union was designed to improve “workers’ wages, working conditions, and hours” (see link below). The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and its workers were key players at that time in the fight between unions and companies. The fire that killed 146 of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory workers in 1911, sparked the push toward safety and compensation laws for workers. The fire was so deadly because the company had locked the doors of the factory, so that no one could leave without permission. Those who died were mostly young immigrant women who either burned to death or jumped to their deaths to avoid the flames. Today marks 104 years since this tragedy. And although U.S. garment worker unions are weak today, they allowed for necessary change to improve the U.S. working conditions that have become the norm today.

This may seem far away, but there are present day events that show that the past problems of worker exploitation and dangerous work conditions are far from resolved. The Rana Plaza tragedy in which over 1,000 garment workers were killed or terribly injured when the factory building collapsed, is a dramatic example. There are many other disasters like this, though, that occur frequently, but don’t make as much news. The following link gives a good overview, and there are many other good articles on the subject.

I share all of this to emphasize the importance of caring about where our clothing comes from and who is making it.  No matter where in the world they live, skilled laborers should be proud of their craft and valued for their important contribution. After all, there is no one in our society who doesn’t need clothes!

The lyrics to the below song (written in the ’70s) sum up the ideal garment worker situation,

“The Union’s “Look for the Union Label” song went as follows:

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,
We work hard, but who’s complaining?
Thanks to the ILG, we’re paying our way,
So always look for the union label,
It says we’re able to make it in the USA!”

“The Garment Worker (1984) by Judith Weller was commissioned by the ILGWU and the Public Art Fund, and donated to the City of New York. It is on permanent display outside 555 Seventh Avenue, between West 39th and 40th Streets in the Garment District of Midtown Manhattan. It portrays a garment worker at a sewing machine and is intended as a reminder of the role of the ILGWU’s members in making New York one of the garment and fashion centers of the world.”




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A native Floridian, I'm in New York City to follow my creative pursuits- textile art, clothing design, museum loitering, people watching...

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