Making the union label for 100 years

By Sascha Brodsky

Downtown Express photo by Corky Lee

Evelyn Dubrow, 92, who joined the garment workers’ union now known as UNITE in 1956, is greeted by Wing Fong Chen, 75, an organizer of the 1982 Chinatown strike at the union’s 100th anniversary party last week.

The world has changed a lot in the century since the local garment worker’s union was founded, but union members from 1903 would be instantly familiar with their counterparts of the current era.

Recent immigrants in loud, clanking factories still mostly perform the work of sewing and cutting.

The union celebrated its 100th anniversary at a ceremony last week, recognizing the progress made by workers while still worrying about the challenges ahead. New York’s garment industry has lost jobs after the impact of the World Trade Center attack and the shifting of manufacturing overseas.

“I think the major change that has taken place over the last hundred years is the names and faces among our members,” said Edgar Romney, the secretary of Local 23-25 (UNITE). “The union has gone from immigrants and it’s still immigrants,” he said. “The names and faces have changed. In the beginning they were Jews and Italians but over the last 25 years they have become Latinos and Asian Americans.”

The union began 100 years ago as the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. In 1995, the I.L.G.W.U. merged with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union to form UNITE, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees.

Immigrants have traditionally been the core of the union because the work is hard, the hours long and the ability to speak English is not a requirement, Romney said.

“It’s very hard to do this kind of work,” he added. “Sewing-technology has not changed that much in the last hundred years. It used to be operated by foot pedals, but the difficulty of being a sewing machine operator has not changed.”

One of the union’s pivotal events was the 1982 Chinatown strike when 20,000 Chinese immigrant workers walked off the job in one of the largest demonstrations against poor factory conditions that the city had seen in decades. The I.L.G.W.U. responded to the protest by creating the Immigration Project to assist workers in obtaining legal status and protection. The union also began a campaign to reach out to consumers and alerted them to the rise of sweatshops worldwide.

“In spite of the challenges the union faces, the spirit of workers is a strong as ever,” Romney said. “We can see that from the strike of 1982, when Asian Americans stood ready to fight for their rights.”

Richard Fong, a union member, was a 32-year-old garment worker at the time of the strike.

“There was a tremendous feeling of anger,” he recalled. “The working conditions were very bad. The wages were very bad. When we marched out into the streets we had power for the first time.”

Another garment worker, Cynthia Chen, said that the 1982 strike was “the first time” Chinatown workers stood up for their rights.

“There was a lot of pride,” she said.

Earlier formative moments in the union’s history were recalled last week. These included the strike of 1909, when thousands gathered in the Great Hall at New York City’s Cooper Union. In 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist factory burst into flames, killing many of the women who had been locked inside.

The tragedy of the fire raised the union’s profile and membership jumped to more than 90,000. But membership in the union is now declining.

“The greatest challenge the union faces is the loss of the hundreds of thousands garment jobs that the industry once had,” Romney said.

“As a result of the trade policies our county has lost too many jobs. Policies like NAFTA have lost significant jobs to the global economy. For example, the local chapter of UNITE, one of the largest in the country , had 28,000 in the 1980s but now has 12,000. The rest of the jobs have gone overseas.”


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