The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) was once one of the largest labor unions in the United States. Founded in 1900 by local union delegates, it represented about 2,000 members in cities in the Northeastern United States. The union grew in geographical scope, membership size, and political influence to become one of the most powerful forces in American organized labor by mid-century.
Representing workers in the women’s garment industry, the ILGWU worked to improve working and living conditions of its members through collective bargaining agreements, training programs, health care facilities, cooperative housing, educational opportunities, and other efforts. The ILGWU merged with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union in 1995 to form the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE). In 2004 UNITE merged with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE) to form UNITE HERE, which today serves over 300,000 members in the United States and Canada.
On June 24, 1982, nearly 20,000 Chinatown garment workers belonging to the ILGWU went on the largest strike in the history of New York’s Chinatown. Contractors employing the women had rejected the newest contract negotiated by the ILGWU, attempting to undercut rules regarding holiday and overtime pay as well as non-union manufacturing. Rallying in Columbus Park, the demonstration was unlike anything the neighborhood had ever seen, with thousands and thousands of Chinese immigrant women rallying together as one. Within a few days, all but a handful of Chinatown contractors pledge to sign the union contact; the union organized a second rally on June 29 as large as the first one with threats to strike against any contractor that did not sign. It only took hours for all contractors to pledge, ending in victory.