International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union

By: Sherilyn Brandenstein

Type: General Entry

Published: October 1, 1995

Updated: March 31, 2017

The Texas branch of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union was formed in Dallas in 1934, after some local workers had formed independent unions in 1933. The ILGWU office in St. Louis sent Meyer Perlstein and his staff to Texas to assist. By mid-1935 their efforts were enhanced by the Wagner Act, which outlawed industrial employers' interference with union organizing. Manufacturers responded to ILGWU pressure by intimidating workers, firing the union's most active members, and communicating with the ILGWU solely via the Texas Dress Manufacturers' Association. Union members at the Morton-Davis factory walked out in February 1935 over firings of fellow ILGWU members. Although the union voted for a general strike, the 150 strikers represented only 20 percent of Dallas garment workers. The company managers refused to submit to arbitration. Repeated jailings and a trial over the forced stripping of several nonunion workers garnered much publicity, but wore down union activists by the fall of 1935. The ILGWU ended the strike in November but succeeded in obtaining representation in five dress firms by late 1936. After a strike against Sheba Ann Frocks and many National Labor Relations Board hearings, that firm's owner signed a contract with ILGWU locals 121 and 204 in 1937.

During 1934 San Antonio organized two ILGWU locals. The owner of Dorothy Frocks agreed to a union contract, but he died before it was implemented. His widow's refusal to honor the promised contract precipitated an ILGWU strike in 1935. The next year, the company moved its operations to Dallas, hoping to avoid the union, but the Dallas ILGWU carried the strike on and in November 1936 won a contract with the firm. San Antonio ILGWU members struck against the Shirlee Frock Company in 1937 and the Texas Infants' Dress Company in 1938 and obtained contracts favorable to workers, whether home-based or in factories. Their successes helped the San Antonio ILGWU win a contract in 1938 with Juvenile Manufacturing that benefited 400 workers there. By 1940 1,000 area workers were union members. San Antonio's three ILGWU locals were thus the most prominent Texas representatives of the Congress of Industrial Organizations at the time (see TEXAS STATE INDUSTRIAL UNION COUNCIL). However, the Texas ILGWU had been so eager to acquire new members on the payroll-deduction plan that it had agreed to "sweetheart" contracts that guaranteed lower wages than most ILGWU contracts nationwide.

The protracted and expensive conflict surrounding the 1935 union strikes in Dallas had caused garment firms in Houston to accept union recruitment more readily. Mary Jane Miller, the Houston ILGWU education director, laid the groundwork by enlisting support from influential Houston men. By 1936 Local 214 had signed up workers at all five Houston ladies' garment factories, including Gerson and Kaplan, which employed 400 dressmakers. Organizers obtained contracts for a forty-hour work week, a $12-a-week wage, and union shops in all five plants. The ILGWU began recruiting in Laredo in 1936, building on successful efforts by La Union de Costureras, an independent local, to organize home-based garment workers for higher wages and a local factory. From a low of twenty-eight members in 1937, Local 350 grew to 340 members by 1940. Most worked on subcontracts for New York firms accustomed to hiring unionized labor. In an unusual arrangement, the manufacturers' Laredo subcontractor was Sara Ligarde, who also headed the ILGWU local.

In Dallas the ILGWU's membership was concentrated in the Nardis Company and the Sheba Ann Manufacturing Company. Dallas nonunion companies gradually matched the union shops' wages, benefits, and working conditions, thus stalemating union recruiting drives. Meanwhile, garment manufacturing also moved operations to rural communities and the Rio Grande valley. ILGWU activity waned in San Antonio in the 1940s; membership dropped to 600 by 1950. By 1963 the San Antonio union folded, following a final strike at Tex-Son over the company's practice of sending work out of state to nonunion firms. In Houston tough negotiations with the Ka-Bro firm in 1961 had won the ILGWU's representatives a contract guaranteeing wages twenty-five cents higher than the minimum and improved working conditions. By 1966, however, three local ILGWU-represented plants, including Ka-Bro, had shut down. In 1949 Andrea Martínez revived the Laredo ILGWU Local 350 to call for an investigation of underpaid local workers. The NLRB required their employers to deliver the back pay. In 1978 the East Coast firms, which had contracted with Laredo operations to make children's wear, discontinued orders and switched to contractors outside the United States. Laredo Local 350 expired.

During the 1980s woman garment workers in El Paso, a sportswear-manufacturing center, maintained the strongest ILGWU local in the state. In 1991 several ILGWU members affiliated with La Mujer Obrera, a workers' advocacy group and led a strike and a national boycott against Sonia's Apparel and its parent company. The strikers, mostly citizens of Ciudad Juárez, complained of stressful working conditions and threats of firings whenever they protested uncompensated overtime labor. In January 1992 the ILGWU negotiated a three-year contract. Since Dallas was becoming the largest women's clothing manufacturing center in the south central United States, the ILGWU regional office renewed efforts to organize workers there in 1990. Efforts addressed the need for adequate health-care coverage, the desire for paid holidays, and the problem of supervisor favoritism. By 1992 ILGWU had 700 members in the Dallas and El Paso locals. The ILGWU offers its members cultural and educational opportunities, including literacy and English language classes.

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Richard Croxdale and Melissa Hield, eds., Women in the Texas Workforce: Yesterday and Today (Austin: People's History in Texas, 1979). Dorothy D. DeMoss, The History of Apparel Manufacturing in Texas, 1897–1981 (Ph.D. dissertation, Texas Christian University, 1981; New York: Garland Publishing, 1989). George Green, "ILGWU in Texas, 1930–1970," Journal of Mexican American History 1 (Spring 1971). International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union Collection, University of Texas at Arlington Library. Robert Garland Landolt, The Mexican American Workers of San Antonio, Texas (New York: Arno Press, 1976).

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Sherilyn Brandenstein, “International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 19, 2022,

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October 1, 1995
March 31, 2017

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