Garment Workers’ Struggle for Union Power



Rose Pesotta and fellow strikers confront a police officer while picketing in Los Angeles, 1940s.

Since the 1920s, the garment industry of Los Angeles has seen constant struggle between employers and immigrant workers’ unions. In 1933, young women in the industry led a militant general strike that shut down production and led to dramatic confrontations between strikers, strikebreakers, and the police. The strike’s leader was Rose Pesotta, an Jewish immigrant from Ukraine who later rose to a national leadership position in the union, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). Although the 1933 strike was a limited success, the union fought on to expand membership during and after World War II. The ILGWU and a second garment union, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, represented large sections of the garment industry from the 1940s through the 1960s.

By the 1970s, unionism was in decline as the apparel industry faced competition from imported goods. Many employers returned to old ways of doing business, hiring mainly undocumented immigrants, operating without union contracts, and contracting out to homeworkers. At this time, many unions favored deporting undocumented workers rather than organizing them, but this attitude was changing. In Los Angeles, the ILGWU hired Spanish-speaking organizers and aggressively signed up new members. But the union faced an uphill climb as immigration officers frequently raided factories and deported union supporters, sometimes on the day of a union election. These experiences led the ILGWU to call for unconditional amnesty for undocumented workers, and in 1980 the union unsuccessfully advocated for the AFL-CIO to embrace a general amnesty. At the local level, the union also used the contracts it did win to expand the rights of undocumented workers. For instance, some contracts required employers to inform workers when immigration officials planned contacted them or required legal warrants for factory raids.

in the 1970s immigration officers frequently raided factories and deported union supporters, sometimes on the day of a union election.

Although the ILGWU campaign was not as successful as hoped, it pointed to the future of organizing. The AFL-CIO finally changed its policy on undocumented workers in 2000, reflecting the common orientation of most its unions by that time. The ILGWU campaign was a training ground for a new generation of union organizers, many of whom went on to play a role in the union upsurge of the 1990s. Among them were Maria Elena Durazo (HERE/UNITE HERE, current state Senator), Cristina Vasquez (SEIU-Workers United, the current name for the ILGWU), Jono Shaffer and Rocio Saenz (later with SEIU), Peter Olney (later with ILWU), and others.

Today, Workers United (affiliated with SEIU) carries on the work of the ILGWU and the ACWA, however, most of the industry’s workers do not enjoy collective bargaining rights. For nonunion workers, the Los Angeles Garment Worker Center (GWC) supports garment workers in efforts to enforce labor standards, recover unpaid wages, and build a culture of solidarity in the industry. The GWC is an example of the complementary roles played by unions and worker centers today.

Further Reading

Stansbury, Jeff. “L.A. Labor & the New Immigrants.” Labor Research Review 1, no. 13 (April 1989).
Soldatenko, Gutierrez Maria A. de. “International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union Labor Organizers: Chicana and Latina Leadership in the Los Angeles Garment Industry.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 23, no. 1 (April 2002): 46–66.
Katz, Daniel. All Together Different: Yiddish Socialists, Garment Workers, and the Labor Roots of Multiculturalism. The Goldstein-Goren Series in American Jewish History. New York: New York University Press, 2011.
Laslett, John H. M. Sunshine Was Never Enough: Los Angeles Workers, 1880-2010. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.
Zepeda-Millán, Chris. Latino Mass Mobilization: Immigration, Racialization, and Activism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Primary Sources

  • We call each other sister unions

    Rocio Sáenz recalls the spirit of solidarity among unions in the early 1990s I come from Mexico City, and I had a union there. Even though, looking back at the unions in Mexico, they were often very corrupt, at the time I thought it was better than nothing. When I came to the U.S., I…

  • They were willing to break with tradition

    Maria Elena Durazo recalls her first organizing job On a trip to Mexico I met Cristina Vázquez and others from the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU or ILG, now Workers United-SEIU). And when we came back, Cristina referred me to the union for a job. I was already familiar with the work of the…

  • We were the union they’d call

    Cristina Vázquez on the lessons of organizing immigrant workers in the 1970s In 1976, when I started working for the ILGWU, we had several thousand members, but for ten years they had hardly organized a shop. The union had not paid much attention to the situation in L.A. … but then the ILGWU decided to…

  • No peace without social justice, 1992

    Marchers carry signs and banners from a variety of Los Angeles community organizations and unions, including one from Local 399 reading “No Hay Paz sin Justicia Social” (No Peace without Social Justice). A handwritten note on the back of the photograph appears to read “J for J Rent Protest 5/92” suggesting a connection to the…

  • Jobs with Peace

    How can progressive political movements win power in geographically expansive and multiracial cities like Los Angeles? The answer, according to the Los Angeles Jobs with Peace campaign was “coalition architecture,” an intentional strategy to link the interests of organized labor with the peace movement, the women’s movement, and the African American civil rights movement through…

  • Somma waterbed workers win back pay, 1985

    In 1984, workers at the Somma waterbed factory in East Los Angeles began organizing fellow workers at neighborhood soccer games and decide to join the ILGWU. Most of the workers were immigrants from Mexico and Central America, many without documentation. Their employer was Angel Echevarria, a prominent figure in the Latino community and in Los…