Garment Workers

Upheaval in the Garment Trades


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In the early 20th century, New York was the largest city and garment production the largest manufacturing business in America. The garment trade was made possible by tens of thousands of immigrant workers, who labored long hours under unsafe conditions in crowded tenements or factories.

On November 22, 1909, immigrant worker Clara Lemlich of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) called for a General Strike. Lemlich’s “Uprising of the Twenty Thousand” and a devastating fire at the Triangle Waist Company factory in Greenwich Village in 1911 illuminated the contributions of working women and made labor unions key players in the life of the city.

New York working people had been organizing unions since 1794, when the city’s industrial revolution began creating wage workers distinct from business owners. But the garment activists of 1909-1911 transformed the city’s labor movement and ushered in a new era, one in which labor unions—and working women in particular—became central players in the city’s economy.

Alongside labor activists, elected officials and Tammany Hall reformers made New York a model of workplace legislation, and unions became crucial to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Yet in the mid-20th century, many garment factories left in search of lower costs and fewer regulations, and union power diminished. Unions criticized manufacturers for abandoning New York, while manufacturers blamed unions for keeping labor costs too high. But in recent years, organized labor has made new inroads in the service economy, and the garment industry has renewed its emphasis on “Made in New York.”

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