A Timeline of Action and Organization, 1900-1995
Shortly after their founding in 1900 and 1914 respectively, the ILGWU and the ACWA adopted a multi-pronged approach to defending the wages and working conditions of workers in the clothing industry. In order to fight against low pay and sweatshop-like unsafe conditions, these two unions organized aggressively and led some of the most militant strikes of the era, which involved thousands of young immigrant women of Jewish and Italian descent. The 1909 strike galvanized 20,000 women and resulted in better wages and hours for most workers. The infamous Triangle fire of 1911 in New York City, during which 146 young workers perished, brought to stark relief the consequences of unchecked industrialism and prompted a renewed interest in union organization.
The union label was another tool in the labor’s arsenal. It was used since the early days of the unions’ history, but it became increasingly important by mid-century century as imports surged. The ACWA established a Union Label Department in 1948, the ILGWU did so in 1958. The departments were charged with “the design of the label, creation of a control system, and promulgation of a promotion program.”
These efforts on the part of the unions were valiant, but were not enough to combat the effect of changes in the global production and trade of clothing: burgeoning offshore textile and apparel manufacturing in the 1970s, increased imports throughout the 1980s, trade liberalization in the 1990s, and the emergence of global supply chains in the late 20th century that privileged production in low-wage regions.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 95% of an American’s wardrobe in 1960 was manufactured in the United States; by the end of the 20th century, that number dropped to 29% and today hovers around 2%.
The legacy of the ILGWU and the ACWA is still alive today. In 1995 they merged to form the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE), comprised of 250,000 members. In 2003, UNITE merged with HERE to form UNITE-HERE, which organizes workers in a variety of sectors in addition to clothing.