The Labour Movement

‘A Stitch in Time’ Exhibition

The Labour Movement

Union organization in Winnipeg’s garment industry began in the 1890s with the founding of the United Garment Workers of America (UGW). In 1916 a local of the International Ladies Garment workers emerged from a strike at Faultless Ladies Wear factory. Early struggles centred around better working conditions, higher wages, opposition to open shops and the expansion of outwork.

Throughout the 1930s, the IUNTW continued to espouse inclusive unionism between skilled and unskilled. Within a generally patriarchal system, it made an effort to organize and place women in positions of authority. Bertha Dolgoy and Polly Wolodarsky were especially active in promoting trade union ideals. Although the majority of workers were women, very few held office; those that did, subordinated their interests as women to economic issues and the class struggle.

Many leaders of the IUNTW and of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union were Jews. By the 1930s, a local of the International Fur and Leather Workers Union (IFLWU) was busily signing up workers, and its leadership and rank-and-file had a significant Jewish presence. The ILGWU’s executive minute books were in Yiddish until 1942, and in 1950, even with fewer Jewish workers, fourteen of the twenty-six executive members of ILGWU local 216 were Jews.

By the late 1930s, the Communist International’s United Front policy discouraged revolutionary tactics. More militant unions such as the IUNTW were directed to dissolve and work with traditional unions such as the ILGWU and UGW. In his study “Jews in the Clothing Industry in Winnipeg,” Tom Kosatsky suggested that owners Shia Feldman and Ben Jacob lobbied the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council, the umbrella organization of the labour movement, lobbied to have a union organizer come to Winnipeg. In 1935, Sam Herbst, a Lithuanian Jew who had emigrated to the United States, arrived to sign up workers for the ILGWU. He was able to convince the owners that it was in their best interest to accept the union and sign an industry-wide contract that protected them from future labour strife. By taking this company unionism approach, Herbst was viewed as having favoured the owners. Herbst ruled with an iron fist, and discouraged participation by the rank-and-file and by women. Although, there were to be no strikes in the women’s garment sector during Herbst’s twenty-five years in Winnipeg, major concessions were made to the owners, including the expansion of the piece-rate system during World War II, a method of work that continued into the future.

By 1944, the UGW had been taken over by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, an affiliate of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. The ACWA sought to counter Herbst’s considerable influence by signing up 1200 workers within its first year. By 1948, it had succeeded in negotiating a generous benefits package for its workers, and made provisions for a negotiated settlement and a grievance arbitration system.

By the late 1950s, garment unions were no longer sites of Jewish radical culture or a working class solidarity. The Jewish community had changed dramatically after the War: more people were becoming university educated and were entering professions and semi-professional areas of work in impressive numbers. By the 1960s, garment workers were coming from southeast Asia, the Philippines, and southern Europe. The ILGWU and ACWA continued to operate into the 1990s. However, with the diminution of the garment work force as a result of technological changes, globalization, and offshore production, union membership declined dramatically. The ILGWU and ACWA merged in 1995 to create UNITE (Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees), which, in 2004, merged with HERE (Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union) to create UNITE HERE.