Fighting for the Union Label

The Womens Garment Industry and the ILGWU in Pennsylvania

By (author) Kenneth C. Wolensky, Nicole H. Wolensky, Robert P. Wolensky

Paperback - £28.95

Publication date:

15 May 2002

Length of book:

288 pages

Publisher

Penn State University Press

ISBN-13: 9780271021683

It is no coincidence that the garment industry gained a foothold in Pennsylvania’s hard-coal region as mines were closing or reducing operations. "Runaway" factories, especially ones from Manhattan, set up shop in mining towns where labor was plentiful and unions scarce. By the 1930s, garment factories employed thousands of wives and daughters of unemployed or underemployed coal miners in the Wyoming Valley. Organizing workers would prove difficult for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU).

Fighting for the Union Label tells the story of how workers in the Wyoming Valley, led by Min Lurye Matheson and her husband, Bill, banded together and built one of the largest and most activist movements of garment workers in the ILGWU’s vast network. Workers’ education, political activism, a health care center, and a widely recognized chorus were among the union’s trademarks. Despite the union’s influence, however, the apparel industry migrated to the American South and then overseas in the 1970s and 1980s. Tens of thousands of workers throughout the state and nation would loose their jobs, and sweatshops would become part of the economic landscape in countries like Guatemala.

The first major work on the garment industry and its workers in Pennsylvania, Fighting for the Union Label draws extensively upon the Wyoming Valley Oral History Project (co-directed by Ken and Robert Wolensky) which has collected the reminiscences of more than 325 workers, factory owners, public officials, and others. The story of the dynamic Min Matheson and the rise and fall of the garment industry provides key insights into the deindustrialization of northeastern Pennsylvania.

“The Wolenskys tell the important story of the building of the ILGWU among runaway garment firms in the Wyoming Valley. Fighting for the Union Label is a very significant addition to our understanding of the garment industry in the twentieth century, union organizing among women garment workers, and the deindustrialization in the anthracite region of Pennsylvania.”

—Thomas Dublin, State University of New York at Binghamton