Work: In the Garment Industry

In the U.S. workplace, people often interact with others from different backgrounds. Workplace issues and the advantages of collective action at times superseded ethnic loyalties and prejudices. The garment industry is one example where diverse groups of immigrant workers have joined together in unions to demand better treatment and increased wages.

Necktie workshop in tenement, New York City, around 1889

Necktie workshop in tenement, New York City, around 1889

Courtesy of Library of Congress

Conditions in El Monte sweatshop, around 1995

Conditions in El Monte sweatshop, around 1995

Since the late 1800s garment workers, many of them immigrants, have suffered low wages, long hours, and unhealthy environments. They have come together with human rights organizations to negotiate for better conditions in the workplace, establishing fair wages, job safety, reasonable hours, and child labor restrictions across the country.

Recovering after Shirtwaist fire, around 1911

Recovering after Shirtwaist fire, around 1911

Courtesy of Hadwin Lantern Slide Collection, Kheel Center, Cornell University

Recovering after El Monte raid, around 1995

Recovering after El Monte raid, around 1995

Photograph by Rick Meyer, © 1995. Los Angeles Times. Reprinted with Permission

History of Fighting for Change

Demand for inexpensive, mass-produced fashion spurred the rise of early garment factories. In March 1911 New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory burned, killing nearly 150 mostly immigrant workers who had been locked in. The tragedy brought widespread attention to labor conditions. Workers united in a movement leading to laws and regulations protecting laborers.

Stampholder, 1909–1925

Gift of Dadie and Norman B. Perlov

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Badge, International Ladies’ Garment Worker’s Union, 1940 

Badge, International Ladies’ Garment Worker’s Union, 1940
 

Transfer from U.S. Legislative Branch, Library of Congress, Exchange and Gift Division

Uniting for Rights

In 1995, seventy-two undocumented Thai immigrants were rescued from a sweatshop in El Monte, California, where they were held captive. This highly publicized case brought attention to illegal sweatshops. It became a call to action for garment workers and advocates, who came together in unions and human rights organizations to fight for better labor conditions.

Shirt from El Monte sweatshop

Gift of State of California, Department of Industrial Relations, Division of Labor Standards Enforcement

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Fabric trim from El Monte sweatshop

Gift of State of California, Department of Industrial Relations, Division of Labor Standards Enforcement

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