The 35,000+ strong Dressmakers Local 22 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in the New York City showed what social unionism could offer. Over 25,000, or 75%, of its members were women, with over 30 languages spoken in its ranks. Almost exclusively Jewish (98%) just a few years early, Local 22 was around 70% Jewish in 1936. The CIO’s expansive industrial unionism was bearing fruit. Thousands of Black women had joined, around 10% of the local, in the aftermath of the massive 1933-34 strikes, as did many Puerto Ricans,who then made up 6.5% of the Local, around 2500 workers. Jewish, Black, Puerto Rican, and Italian women all held senior roles on the Local’s bodies. Jennie Silverman, on the Local’s Executive and one of the union’s Education Directors, was a child refugee from pogroms in Russia, and garment worker since her teens. She became an early member of the Young Communist League in the 1920s, and at this time, like much of the leadership of the Local, was a member of the ‘Lovestonite’ Communist Party of the USA (Opposition). She helped to organize and lead many of the classes offered.
‘Dressmaker’s Local 22’ by Jennie Silverman from The Woman Today. Vol. 1 No. 12. March, 1937.
A CONSIDERABLE PORTION of New York’s melting pot population is employed in its largest industry of women’s apparel. Thirty thousand of these are members of Dressmakers Union Local 22, I.L.G.W.U.
To belong to a union is to learn the first lesson in class consciousness. When one has to pay weekly dues, he is bound to ask: What for? And he is bound to check up whether his money is used for the purpose his chairman says it is. It was amazing to find how quickly the benefits of unionism are learned by all engaged in the industry. While serving on the membership committee of our union, I found that every applicant, from the American born 18-year old twins, who were entering the industry as cleaners, to the woman who spoke only Arabian and had to get herself a translator, to the 70- year old Polish born Jewish cloakmaker who was joining our union, each knew what the minimum wage scale of his particular craft was.
This, to me, is the most important lesson of unionism, to know and to fight for the conditions won by the union. But there’s another lesson which runs it a close second but which is not so easily learned. And that is that to gain better conditions a union must be built, maintained and strengthened all the time. To teach members this lesson, our Educational Department was established because, to carry out these tasks, one must speak the language of his fellow workers; one must know trade union and labor history and economics. One must learn to follow and understand current events of interest to the labor movement. To be of greater help to himself and his union, a worker needs to school himself in the art of understanding labor problems and meet them as they come along.
OVER 75 per cent of our members are women and they naturally predominate very considerably in our classes. Look into the class in American history- mature women, with many cares and a background reaching back to some corner of Europe, sitting side by side with young girls who~ are beginning to understand that there are some things they should know which they didn’t learn at school. Or look into the class on “Europe Today” where over 150 students representing a cross-section of our membership follow week by week the world-shaking struggle between the forces of socialism and fascism. Or the advanced class in trade union problems where shop and building chairmen and active members study the background of the present crisis in the labor movement, the problems and perspectives of the C.I.0. Or the class in social psychology, or the classes in English and public speaking, combining technical training with education in unionism.
At our center school, housed at union headquarters, there is an enrollment of about 1,000 members and attendance has grown with each term. On the same principle we run several neighborhood schools in districts where our members live.
A cultural and sports program supplements our educational work. Many hundreds take advantage of the instructions given in swimming, calisthenics, boxing, wrestling, tennis, handball, basketball, baseball and soccer. Many more participate in the dancing, dramatics, choral and music groups we have set up.
Our shop chairmen, our picket captains, our executive board members and Union Defenders (squads of rank-and-file members who patrol the district to prevent overtime violations) of the present and of the future, have been benefiting by these educational activities. They have been made into more effective fighters and so our union as a whole has profited by it. And we’re working for a constantly larger and more varied educational program that will draw in more and more of our 30,000 members into the work of the union and thus also into the labor movement as such.
The Working Woman, ‘A Paper for Working Women, Farm Women, and Working-Class Housewives,’ was first published monthly by the Communist Party USA Central Committee Women’s Department from 1929 to 1935, continuing until 1937. It was the first official English-language paper of a Socialist or Communist Party specifically for women (there had been many independent such papers). At first a newspaper and very much an exponent of ‘Third Period’ politics, it played particular attention to Black women, long invisible in the left press. In addition, the magazine covered home-life, women’s health and women’s history, trade union and unemployment struggles, Party activities, as well poems and short stories. The newspaper became a magazine in 1933, and in late 1935 it was folded into The Woman Today which sought to compete with bourgeois women’s magazines in the Popular Front era. The Woman today published until 1937. During its run editors included Isobel Walker Soule, Elinor Curtis, and Margaret Cowl among others.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/wt/v1n11%20%2812%29-mar-1937-women-today.pdf