In honor of Labor Day, we want to recognize one of the largest labor organizations in the garment industry: the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), representing the thousands of men and women who painstakingly made and manufactured women's clothing. The ILGWU was active from 1900 to 1995, but throughout its 95 year history it made great strides in demanding justice and fair representation for those working in an industry known for extremely hazardous conditions.
Workers in a garment factory, c. 1910. Courtesy of the Kheel Center at Cornell University.
The ILGWU was started in 1900 during the throes of the Industrial Revolution, when employers and workers clashed over dangerous factory conditions, unfair wages, long hours, and unsanitary environments. The garment industry in particular was rife with injustice, as factory owners took advantage of the largely immigrant workforce. Employees were forced to take sewing home to their cramped tenements, or worked in overcrowded factories with no breaks. The Yiddish lament below (translated to English) was sung in clothing sweatshops at the turn-of-the-century, before reforms reached the factory floors:
Day the same as night, night the same as day.
And all I do is sew and sew and sew.
May God help me, and my love come soon.
That I may leave this work and go. 
Large-scale strikes in 1909 and 1910 spurred compromise between the ILGWU and clothing manufacturer associations, resulting in the Protocol of Peace agreement that established fair working conditions and standardized payment structures. After the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911, in which 146 workers perished because they were locked in on the factory floor, efforts were doubled between the government, social welfare groups, manufacturers, and the ILGWU to enforce safety regulations. Soon, ILGWU local branches expanded from New York City to other capitals of garment manufacture, including Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
Like many unions, the ILGWU was formed with a strong Socialist ideology. The organization provided education, healthcare, housing, and even recreation for its members. The union also raised money for socialist causes, providing funds for refugees fleeing the Nazis during World War II and making contributions to the Red Cross during the Spanish Civil War. Health Centers were established as early as 1913; in addition to general medical care, they addressed women's health and cared for ailments often found in garment industry workers, such as tuberculosis and respiratory issues from poor ventilation.
I. Magnin, 1955-1956
Gift of Mrs. Roxanne Wilson