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The International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union

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The International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union was one of the most important Unions during the early 1900s. Founded by mainly Jewish Immigrants and made up of predominantly female members, but ironically run by men, the Union represented workers in women’s clothing in the US and Canada. The Union led strikes to protest unfair and unsanitary conditions in their workplace, two of their biggest were The Uprising of 20,000 and The Great Revolt.

In 1909, 20,000 workers, who were mostly young women, led an 11 week strike against the New York Shirtwaist Industry to protest low wages, long hours, and unsafe conditions especially for women who would often be harassed by men in the workplace. The strike wasn’t 100% effective, but led to some significant changes. 339 out of the Associated Waist and Dress Manufacturers’ 353 firms signed contracts to meet the striker’s demands, like a 52 hour work week, four paid holidays a year, no discrimination against union loyalists, provision of tools and materials without fees, and negotiation of wages with their employees. Additionally, 85% of shirtwaist makers in New York joined the ILGWU.

Another strike, this time in 1910, was even larger than the Uprising of 20,000. Comprised of mostly men, more than 50,000 cloak makers went on strike in The Great Revolt. They wanted union recognition and a closed shop system, among other things like higher wages and fair hours that were also the goal of the Uprising in 1909. The strike was met with opposition, and a man named Louis Brandeis created the “Protocol of Peace,” a compromise between the ILGWU and employers of the garment industry in New York City. The purpose of the protocol was to establish “joint control” of the industry between the wealthy owners and the unions.

In 1911, the issues that workers had been protesting were illustrated in the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. On March 5th, 1911, 146 workers who couldn’t escape the building because of locked exists were killed in the fire. The factory locked all of their doors to discourage walk outs, and this unfair rule caused the death of innocent workers. A woman named Rose Schneiderman, a prominent unionist and activist for women and workers led a funeral march for the victims of the fire. The march and her speech pressured New York to create the Factory Investigating Commision, which investigated conditions in over 2,000 shops, factories, and tenements over the next few years and created laws to protect against fires like unlocked doors during working hours and fire alarms.

The International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union was one of the most influential Unions in the early 20th century. Their successful strikes led to significant changes and improvements in the garment industry and showed the strength and determination of workers.

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