Tuesday 3 May 2011

When work and hobbies collide

In my new quest to become a sewing wonder and make my own clothes, I have started off with doing repairs.  Imagine my surprise when repairing a vintage dress I bought in Los Angeles to discover that it was Union Made! Now this may not be that unusual to see on clothing labels, I don't know, but what is so unusual about this for me is how eerily it related to my new job cataloguing the Archive of the National Union of Women Teachers.  So it just seems incredibly serendipitous that the label on my dress says 'Int. Ladies Garment Workers Union - Union Made'.  Of course I couldn't leave it at that, I had to do a bit more digging and find out about the ILGWU.

On the second page of google results (or the first page if you go through wikipedia entry) is the link to the ILGWU Archive, held at the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives at Cornell University Library.   I mention the ranking in google as I feel that the archive catalogue description should be right up there on the first page, as it's the primary source of information about the union.  The information I've included about the union here is taken from the organisation history included on the catalogue description.  The ILGWU was formed in 1900 in New York City by a variety of immigrant groups, Jewish, Italian, Scots-Irish and Irish, working in the garment industry.  Like the NUWT there was a lot of resistance to the Union but by 1917 they were more powerful and had brought about a great deal of improvements for their members including improved working conditions and unemployment benefit.  I was just cataloguing records today which listed the impressive achievements of the NUWT, including the part they played in gaining equal franchise for women, equal superannuation and pension rights, and of course, their objective - equal pay for women teachers.

There's no point in me just copying out the text from other articles, here and here, where you can read more about the achievements of the ILGWU and some of the horrific events which highlighted the terrible working conditions in place at the time. However the story of the Triangle Waist Company fire in New York.  This was a sweatshop employing 500 people on the ninth floor of a building at Washington Square East.  When a fire broke out on March 25 1911 there was nowhere for the employees, mostly women, many girls as young as 14, to go.  They were unable to open the fire escape or other exits and of the 500 workers, 146 perished that day, either in the fire or jumping from the ninth floor.  Afterwards workers claimed that the owners had locked all the doors to prevent theft, and this was apparently common practice at the time.  The ILGWU proposed a day of mourning and, along with other unions, formed a Joint Relief Committee to help those suffering because of the fire. The company Blanck and Harris were acquitted of any wrongdoing despite the testimonies of all those who survived that they were locked in the building.  Even just writing this now I'm getting shivers up my spine and tears in my eyes just thinking about it, and getting mad as well - how is it that those in power will always get away with their actions for the sake of profit. 

I got the information on the Triangle Factory Fire from an online exhibition at Cornell University to mark 100 years since the fire.  This is a fantastic exhibition with lots of examples of the primary archive material about the fire and all laid out in a very accessible way.

Who would have known I could learn so much from repairing a dress!

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