It isn’t always easy to find an old photo with a big banner in it, but when you do they are usually something good to stir up discussion. Such is my hope this week.
It seems like the moment you say “unions” people’s opinions are usually split between pro and anti union sentiments. But when you look at the history of unions in America, they were intended for good and needed. Working conditions in the American Industrial Age were horrible. One early union movement was to the 8 hour work day, and the shops that followed this movement created unique labels so it would be easy for the purchasing public to find and support them. Union labels are generally attributed to the 1869 movement of Carpenters Eight-Hour League in San Francisco, CA (A Brief History of Labor Symbols, Susan Parker Sherwood, San Francisco State University). The labels indicated to buyers that the Products made in that factory were produced by laborers on an eight-hour workday as opposed to those on a ten-hour day. Later in 1874, the unionized cigar makers used a white label to differentiate their products from those made by lower paid workers.
This particular image from about the 1930s shows women in a parade float, likely going to a labor rally. When I see women and “union label” I think of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and their catchy commercials from the 1980s. The union was formed in the early 1900s at a time when New York City was a major manufacturing center for clothing. The first organized action of the union came in 1909 when 20,000 workers walked out on the Triangle Shirtwaist workshop. 20% of the workforce striked, and in response Triangle locked them out. After 14 weeks, the union accepted an arbitrated agreement, but Triangle was not among the factories that signed the agreement.
Shortly after this, the union led another, larger strike in New York, leading 60,000 or so workers to step away from their sewing machines. This was called the Great Revolt and went on for months. After much arbitration, the strike was settled and workers returned to the factories.
Just two years after the initial strike against Triangle, the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire occurred, killing 146 workers. Many of them perished because Triangle locked the doors of the floors to prevent workers from leaving early. This spurred greater support of the ILGWU and the momentum spread.
By the 1980s, unions in America we’re struggling under pressures to produce cheaper garments, and also from internal corruption. The ILGWU produced a number of commercials with a very catchy song with the following lyrics:
Look for the union label
When you are buying a coat, dress, or blouse,
Remember somewhere our union’s sewing,
Our wages going to feed the kids and run the house,
We work hard, but who’s complaining?
Thanks to the ILG, we’re paying our way,
So always look for the union label,
It says we’re able to make it in the USA!
For more Sepia rallys and slogans, click through to Sepia Saturday. You will be happy you did!