The ILGWU- it was so much more than labor protections…
Labor Unions in US History
I’m up in New York this week visiting family for two weeks. Yesterday, I got to enjoy a fantastic day in the city with my sister. We visited the Tenement Museum to start research for my next book and got to mozey around the Lower East Side. I even got to visit the Brown Building (aka the site of the Triangle Fire.) It was bittersweet to see it again after spending so much time writing about it these past few years.
One thing that really struck me as I went on this past tour and learned about the next phase of history for immigrants on the Lower East Side, was the rising role the International Ladies’ Garment Worker’s Union played for workers and their families.
When we think of labor unions. we think of the role they play in protecting workers’ rights. Negotiating fair pay and hours, protections etc. However, the ILGWU did FAR more than that.
One thing to remember was the Lower East Side of Manhattan was the Garment District. So, a large majority of residents had someone in their family working in a garment factory and therefore an affiliation with the union.
In the aftermath of the Garment Worker’s Strike and the Triangle fire in 1911 the union strengthened substantially. For one, it grew in its reach across other urban areas across the country. And as its reach and membership numbers grew, the union was able to focus on improving other quality of life issues for members and their families.
In 1913 they opened the first Union Health Center in NYC. They soon opened additional centers in other cities across the county and eventually offered mobile health centers to workers in smaller towns and rural areas. At the centers they offered dental care, check ups, and prescriptions to workers and their families.
By 1915 the union began to offer educational opportunities to its members. They offered coursework ranging from English classes to labor history classes. They partnered with high schools and colleges to offer incentives for members to earn credits and diplomas and eventually even offered scholarships for college education.
By 1919, there were even vacation getaways available in the Poconos and Catskills for families to escape busy city life.
These safety net offerings were integral to survival for many of these families. This was especially evident during the Depression era where many men were unable to find jobs and women stepped up to provide the bread-winning role and support for the family.
It’s always interesting to me to look back in history and see how a story changed. Seeing what labor unions offered and how accepting people were of these offerings, it is difficult to imagine how far in opinion and reputation the pendulum could swing in its depiction of labor unions. How and when did that occur? And why? Fear? Slander?
It makes you wonder how fifty years from now our current times will be depicted. ..