This is the first in a two-part retrospective look at my roller coaster relationship with unions, beginning with today’s piece about the central role my father’s union, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (the ILGWU) and moving next week to my experiences with teachers’ unions, beginning in New York in the late ‘60s and continuing to evolve during this controversial pandemic school year. The topic seems particularly relevant at the start of a new administration whose leader has declared himself a union president, aspiring to reinvigorate an ailing institution. We’ll see how that goes.
I must have been 8 or 9 when my parents took me to a performance by the 77-piece International Ladies Garment Workers (ILGWU) Mandolin Orchestra. It was my first experience in a professional theater of any kind, in fact my first experience with “culture”, although some would find it difficult to classify this event under that heading. Whatever aesthetic label you attach to it, going to this concert, something my parents would never have done otherwise, was an indication of how central the union was in my family’s life.
My father came to this country from Russia sometime between 1911 and 1913 as a young teenager and, like so many other Eastern European immigrants of the time, immediately went to work in the garment industry. I’m not sure when he joined the union, but he remained an active member till he retired at age 71 in 1969. During those years, he lived through the monumental battle between the Communists and the Socialists for control of ILGWU, which was won ultimately by David Dubinsky’s socialist faction, the one my father supported. These were the decades long before the bulk of the garment industry disappeared offshore. The membership was divided into locals defined by the particular garments they produced (my father was in Local 119 – Cloaks and Suits – or as its predominantly Yiddish speaking members called it, Clucks). At its peak in the 50s, the union had a membership of over 400,000.
During these years, the ILGWU was more than a full-service operation; it was a state within a state. Like other large unions, it maintained camps and bungalow colonies for its vacationing members. It provided rich educational opportunities for its hungry to learn constituents. It operated health clinics and dispensaries to care for its members health needs. Although we had a family doctor in the neighborhood, we also traveled to Manhattan to take advantage of the services of the Union Health Center, which were free to all members. My mother went there regularly for treatments for the crippling arthritis that left the joints of her fingers swollen and painful enough to interfere with her daily household duties.
The union even employed doctors who made house calls. We were assigned to Dr. Paley, a small, round man whom I sometimes encountered sauntering through the neighborhood clutching his black leather satchel, en route from the subway to minister to one of the union members in his territory. It was he who attended to the projectile nose bleeds which plagued my childhood. I can hear his high-pitched nasal voice exhorting my mother to “get K-Y jelly, K-Y jelly,” whose coagulating properties would staunch the bleeding. And it was he who initially misdiagnosed my illness, marked by a frightening high fever, as polio. His words threw my parents into a panic in those years of frequent and devastating epidemics. A second opinion from our neighborhood doctor reduced the sentence to scarlet fever, scary enough in its capacity to cause heart damage. I suffered through long days of vivid hallucinations and watched the skin peel away from my palms and fingers, but knew somehow to be grateful that I had avoided the ultimate decree, announced from on high by Dr. Paley.
The mandolin concert was just one small corner of the canopy that the union erected over our humble lives. My father was not a joiner. To my knowledge, the only other organization of which he was a member was the Progressive Slutzker Young Men’s Benevolent Association, a grandiose name for a modest confederation of immigrants from roughly the same region of their homeland. I remember seeing an official photograph of the banquet celebrating some big number anniversary of the “Slutzker’s” founding. From the photographer’s slightly elevated angle, one could see a large ballroom filled with a sea of tables occupied by members, their friends and families. However, by the time I became aware of the organization, it had devolved into a burial society for its dwindled membership, which existed only as monthly postcard reminder that the next membership payment was due. In the end, my parents never even used the society’s burial plots. My mother traded them for plots in a more “suburban” cemetery, a promised land she aspired to but never achieved in life. In retrospect, I’m surprised that burial services were not also part of the all-encompassing package offered by the union, given its role in so many other aspects of our lives.
My first disillusionment with the union came when my father retired. There had been grumblings earlier every time the union representatives renegotiated the piece work payments for each coat. During the summer after my senior year of high school, when I worked as a go-fer in my father’s shop, the workers would mutter accusations that the union was in bed with the owners as an explanation for the meager increases gained by the union during each round of bargaining. Looking back, I wonder whether the union leadership already had premonitions of the looming departure of the industry to the cheap labor markets of Asia and were trying to salvage what they could by keeping wages in check.
But none of that was an excuse for the meager pension my father was eligible for on his retirement, far less than my parents needed for even subsistence living. Thank goodness for the existence of social security, a gift from the revered President Roosevelt, which provided enough of a supplement to make a simple but decent life possible. But the failure of the union to provide for employees like my father, who labored in the industry for more than fifty years, with a decent retirement left a bad taste in my mouth. My father rarely displayed any form of anger or bitterness, but I think that he too felt betrayed by an institution from which he was trained to expect protection and support.