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ILGWU supported members with social unionism and Unity House

DISCUSSING SOCIAL INTERPRETATION — Gathering at Unity House for a discussion on the social interpretation of literature, August 1926. Collection: International Ladies Garment Workers Union Photographs (1885-1985). Repository: The Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives in the ILR School at Cornell University is the Catherwood Library unit that collects, preserves, and makes accessible special collections documenting the history of the workplace and labor relations.

By KATHERINE MOSTACCIO

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It was June 3, 1900 when 11 local union delegates, each representing roughly 2,000 mostly Jewish immigrants working in major garment centers in New York City, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Newark, formed the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU).

In its first decade, the fledgling ILGWU and its growing membership didn’t have an easy start.

They faced hostile manufacturers, which hindered membership efforts, and engaged in major strikes. The “uprising of 20,000” female shirtwaist makers and the “great revolt” of male cloakmakers, both in New York City, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, that claimed the lives of 146 young women and men who couldn’t escape from the burning building, marked the early days.

While the union recognized the importance of strikes and advocacy, it also saw the need for “social unionism” and ran with it.

ILGWU brought arts, education, health care, housing and recreation to its members. It established education departments within local unions as early as 1915, with classes ranging from English, to labor history, to visual and performing arts.

ENJOYING THE OUTDOORS — Group including David Dubinsky sitting outside around a radio at Unity House. Collection: International Ladies Garment Workers Union Photographs (1885-1985) Repository: The Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives in the ILR School at Cornell University.

And for the worker who wanted a getaway there was Unity House — a vacation destination away from the hustle and bustle of the big city.

The first Unity House was a rented location in the Catskills of New York. In 1919, 750 acres and a lake were purchased for $85,000 in the Poconos of Pennsylvania. This location would be home to Unity House until its closure.

The resort was an inexpensive escape for union members and their families, as well as a meeting place for local unions and national labor organizations.

Unity House boasted a one-and-a-half-mile lake for swimming, boating, and fishing; tennis, baseball, and basketball courts; and daily activities, such as dancing, roller-skating, and nighttime campfires. In addition to recreation, there were opportunities for education with a 2,000-volume library, theater and visiting artists and lecturers.

From the 1920s to the 1940s, Unity House flourished. In the 1930s, when a fire destroyed the main building, world-famous architect William E. Lescaze was brought on to design a replacement. After World War II, Eleanor Roosevelt visited and wrote, “You could not put children in a more favorable environment.”

In 1956, Unity House opened a lakeside theater modeled on Radio City Music Hall — drawing comedians, opera companies, Radio City Music Hall performers, and the Harlem Dance Theater Group, among others.

But as the decades passed, Unity House and resorts like it began to struggle. The American garment industry was experiencing decline as sewing jobs moved overseas and ILGWU membership fell from its peak of 451,000 in 1968 to about 160,000 in the late 1980s.

UNITY HOUSE DANCE — Circle dance on the lawn in front of the early Unity House lodge. Collection: International Ladies Garment Workers Union Photographs (1885-1985). Repository: The Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives in the ILR School at Cornell University.

During its heydays, the union’s desire to keep the getaway inexpensive despite high attendance meant Unity House often operated at a loss. As the years passed, the operating losses coupled with declining membership as garment jobs moved overseas eventually led to its downfall and, in 1989, Unity House closed its doors.

Unions today continue to offer members valuable educational opportunities and entertainment benefits. Check out your PEF benefits at www.pef.org by clicking on Membership Benefits at the top of the page.

See the ILGWU tv commercials from the 70s and 80s;

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