When we set out to curate a show on the history of women’s work and organizing in the garment industry, we started, as we always do, by digging through our own archives at the New-York Historical Society. Early on, we found a handful of giveaway items—”swag”—from the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) in our museum collections. These items—notebooks, emery boards, rain bonnets, key chains, and more—all implored people to “Look for the Union Label” when buying women’s and children’s clothing. Produced from the 1960s through the 1990s as part of the ILGWU’s massive “Union Label” campaign, this swag helped us frame our narrative. When the women who made clothing asked the women who bought it to support garment workers—as they did throughout the 20th century—they sought to build solidarity along lines of gender. In doing so, they created connections that helped shape women’s movements beyond the factories, from the fight for suffrage in the 1910s to the effort to pass the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. These little bits of mass-produced paper and plastic, it turned out, could help us tell a big, broad story about women’s organizing.
Even more remarkably, they had the power to make people break into song.
Speak or show the phrase “look for the union label” to anyone who watched television in the 1970s or 1980s, and they are liable to start singing or humming the ILGWU’s ditty of the same name. The song was the soundtrack to an advertisement that premiered on TV and radio in 1975. It has the triumphal quality of a march (or a drinking song), and like all the most effective jingles, it sticks in your head immediately and will remain there for decades (if our informal survey of our colleagues is any indication).
After the fourth or fifth time someone starting singing, we realized the advertisement had to appear in the show. The version we chose—one of several the union produced—offers our visitors a recognizable, nostalgic piece of recent history, and also serves as a great introduction to the themes of our show (you can watch it in full below). And, as we learned in researching and preparing the video, the “Union Label” song has a fascinating history of its own, one that brings together several strains of women’s history, music history, and labor history in the 1970s.
The Origins of the Union Label
The first record of any sort of union labeling in the United States appears in 1869, when the Carpenter’s Eight-Hour League of San Francisco created a stamp for lumber produced by mills that employed workers for eight hours a day (and not 10, as was then common). Five years later, San Francisco’s cigar makers created the first “union label,” which they affixed to boxes of cigars produced in union shops. Their union hoped consumers would reward employers who employed unionized white workers, as opposed to the Chinese immigrants—derogatorily referred to as “coolies”—who labored in non-union shops. The practice spread across the country in the 1870s and 1880s, promoted by the Cigar Makers’ International Union of America, which also supported the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act (many other unions supported this legislation, particularly those on the West Coast).
The union label campaigns that followed in other industries tended to eschew the overt racism and nativism of the cigar makers. This was particularly true in the garment industry in New York, where the vast majority of workers were immigrants themselves. However, the question of how to advocate for union workers without resorting to nativism became an issue again in the 1970s, as American workers—and garment workers in particular—contended with the closure of unionized shops in the United States and the opening of factories overseas.
Union labels began appearing on garments, shoes, and hats in the late 19th and early 20th century. The practice was encouraged by a pair of woman-led, cross-class organizations, the National Consumer’s League and the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL), both of which sought to improve working conditions for women in factories. In New York City, the WTUL worked closely with the ILGWU during the “Uprising of the 20,000,” a massive strike of women garment workers, most of them Jewish immigrants, in 1909 and 1910. Organized by the WTUL, middle- and upper-class women raised money for the workers’ strike fund (and bail), prepared and served food to organizers and picketers, and joined garment workers at marches and on on picket lines, where their presence checked police violence (the NYPD feared reprisals for beating up elite New Yorkers). As discussed in our 2017 show Hotbed, connections made among women of different classes during the strike, as well as the tactics of mass protest and picketing, energized the suffrage movement in New York State in the decade that followed.
The WTUL’s magazine, Life and Labor, began printing one year later in 1911. Advertisements touted unionized work forces and showcased the union labels of many unions. Unions, for their part, began producing giveaway items to encourage consumers to support them. Our show Walk This Way: Footwear from the Stuart Weitzman Collection of Historic Shoes featured a pocket mirror created by the Boot and Shoe Workers Union to encourage women customers to “wear union stamped shoes.” The American Federation of Labor (today the AFL-CIO) launched a Union Label Department in these same years, to coordinate and promote the efforts of its member unions.
The ILGWU’s Union Label Campaign
Promoting a “union label,” then, was a well-established tactic when the ILGWU launched its “Union Label” campaign in 1959. At the time, the union was at the height of its power in the United States, with nearly half a million members and union contracts in over half of the industry’s shops (most of which were in the New York metropolitan area). However, garment companies had already begun moving factories to the American South, taking advantage of anti-union laws in many states. In the face of strategic regional shifts by the bosses, the new “union label” campaign was imagined as a national, industry-wide strategy to build support for the ILGWU beyond its traditional strongholds.
The ILGWU rolled out their new label with maximum fanfare and explicit appeals to postwar domesticity and traditional gender roles. At events across the nation, the wives of prominent politicians hand-sewed the new label onto garments, while groups of union leaders, elected officials, and garment workers watched and posed for photos. The union plastered the label on thousands of promotional items, as well as clothing, signs, and banners for picket lines and parades. In 2017, the Kheel Center at Cornell University hosted an exhibition featuring their extensive collection of ILGWU union label materials, which is now available as an online exhibition, Union Made: Fashioning America in the Twentieth Century. The label, the union proclaimed, was a “symbol of decency, fair labor standards, and the American way of life.”
On a union label notepad, with more space for text, the ILGWU went into more detail about its work and its workers. As the notepad explained, the union’s membership was comprised of “mostly women, many of them the sole support of their families,” a truth that challenged the dominant postwar narrative of men as breadwinners and women as homemakers. The union was, at that time, one of the largest organizations of women in the nation, though its leadership remained overwhelmingly male.
The ILGWU also began taking out advertisements in print magazines, urging women across the United States to “look for the union label” when they shopped. As a union of working women, the ILGWU tried to appeal directly to the women who bought clothing for themselves and their children in a variety of ways. For example, the advertisement below features four generations of an imagined “union family” checking one another’s labels.
Garment production expanded as the economy boomed in the 1960s. The number of union-label items leaving garment factories grew from 377 million in 1959 to 2.7 billion in 1968, the peak year for unionized garment production in the United States. The 1970s, however, brought inflation, economic stagnation, and a national depression, during which corporations battered unions at the bargaining table and moved more factories to anti-union states or out of the country entirely. In 1975, only 1.7 billion garments left union shops, a decline of nearly 40% in just seven years. Consumers, squeezed by inflation, proved less likely to pay a premium for union-made goods. In the face of these changes, the ILGWU decided that their union label campaign needed a boost.
“Look for the Union Label”: The Making of the Jingle
The ILGWU recorded four versions of their new commercial in 1975. Each features a worker (or two workers, in the case of a husband-and-wife duo) talking to the camera about the importance of the union in their lives for about 30 seconds. The ads then cut to the ILGWU’s union label as a woman begins singing, quickly joined by a phalanx of other ILGWU workers, all belting out the union’s new anthem:
“Look for the union label, when you are buying that coat, dress, or blouse,
Remember somewhere, our union’s sewing, our wages going to feed the kids and run the house,
We work hard, but who’s complaining? Thanks to the ILG we’re making our way,
So always look for the union label, it says we’re able to make it in the U.S.A.”
The tune is so familiar, at this point, that some people I talked to about the song assumed it was “an old union song,” one of those tunes adapted a thousand times over from an Anglican hymn sung in the parish churches of industrializing England. The lyrics are simple enough that one could be forgiven for thinking the ILGWU had its chorus sing the text of a broadside. However, the fact that the jingle achieves both a sonic timelessness and a lyrical directness is evidence of professionals at work. “Look for the Union Label” was no slapdash affair: the lyrics were composed by path-breaking advertising executive Paula Green, who also directed the new advertising campaign, and the music was the work of ILGWU chorus director Malcolm Dodds, an experienced vocalist and arranger who had worked in New York City’s music studios for decades.
Paula Green (1927-2015) was born to a Jewish family in Los Angeles and came to New York City to work in advertising after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley. At Doyle Dane Bernbach in 1962, she created the “we try harder” catchphrase and campaign for Avis, which the company still uses. Her colleagues in the One Club for Creativity described it as “one of the greatest advertising campaigns of all time.” Green became one of the first woman executives in the advertising industry when she founded Green Dolmatch in 1969, where she served as president and creative director (she re-named the agency Paula Green Advertising in 1978). Green took on campaigns she cared about, including one of the earliest efforts to convince women to conduct self-examinations to prevent breast cancer, launched by the American Cancer Society in 1969 (Green had survived cancer herself as a young woman).
The ILGWU hired Green to create and produce a new line of union label advertisements in 1975. Green loved the campaign and threw herself into it, according to archival intern Cameron Byerly of Duke University (where her papers are held). She “insist[ed] on visiting local factories, employing real workers for TV spots, and saying ‘please buy from us’ rather than ‘don’t buy from foreigners.'” At a moment when responses to globalization could quickly curdle into racism and nativism, Green kept the ILGWU’s campaign positive. As Green told the New York Times in 2004, the campaign did not, ultimately, stem the loss of unionized jobs and factories, but she still took pride in the work. ”I felt particularly close to the women in the union,” Green told the Times. ”They are real examples of women’s liberation.” As she told the One Club, she was particularly glad that the campaign “emphasize[d] that eight out of 10 workers are women” at a time when most of the national discussion of deindustrialization and job loss focused on men.
While Green directed the campaign and wrote the lyrics to “Look for the Union Label,” Malcolm Dodds, the ILGWU’s chorus director, wrote the music. Dodds came to the ILGWU from a long career in the music industry, first with his doo-wop group the Tunedrops in the 1950s, and then with the Malcolm Dodds Singers, a group of highly-regarded session musicians who backed everyone from Neil Sadaka to Nina Simone. By the time he collaborated with Green on “Look for the Union Label,” Dodds had over two decades’ worth of experience composing and performing a wide range of musical styles. The tune he composed and arranged for the ILGWU became, arguably, the biggest hit of his career.
The Long Life and Legacy of “Look for the Union Label”
“Look for the Union Label” was an instant hit for the ILGWU, and quickly became an anthem for the labor movement more broadly. Jimmy Carter quipped, as President, that he couldn’t decide whether he liked it better than “Hail to the Chief.” Al Gore sang it to a gathering of Teamsters on the campaign trail in 2000, describing it as a “favorite lullaby” from his youth (critics noted that Gore was in his late 20s when the song hit the airwaves). Saturday Night Live parodied it almost immediately with an imagined ad for the “American Dope Growers Union,”and South Park devised another parody three decades later. The song today appears alongside other classic labor anthems including “Solidarity Forever” and “Which Side Are You On?” in songbooks and on albums.
However, as Paula Green and ILGWU leaders noted ruefully in the years that followed, the song may have stuck in listeners’ ears, but it did not sway their purchasing practices enough to slow the growth of non-union garment production (whether consumer activism on such a broad scale would even have been possible is another question). Was the song “ultimately a whistle in the wind as manufacturing job losses and foreign imports steadily grew,” as the New York Times wrote in 2004? Perhaps. As labor historians and organizers have consistently shown, advertising campaigns and appeals to consumers, however well done, are no substitute for on-the-ground organizing when it comes to building and sustaining the labor movement.
At the same time, Paula Green’s comments about the process of creating the campaign and making these advertisements suggests that they were something more than a shiny send-off for the unionized American garment industry. When the ILGWU launched its national union label campaign in 1959, it was still appealing to traditional visions of American domesticity, in which elite women’s performative hand-sewing stood in, however inaccurately, for the industrial work of a largely female union membership. When Green re-imagined the campaign 16 years later, she–and the union–embraced the new language of feminism and women’s liberation, giving women workers the opportunity to speak for themselves about the importance of union wages in sustaining their families. As our show Ladies’ Garments, Women’s Work, Women’s Activism shows, this change in rhetoric was part of a broader transition in the union’s gender politics, driven by its rank-and-file women members. “Look for the Union Label” did not solve the vast problems of globalization and economic restructuring. It did, however, offer a highly visible portrait of unionized, working-class women to the American public at a key moment in the history of women’s organizing in the United States. It is a vision that resonates into the present, in which women workers and union leaders are at the forefront of the American labor movement.
— Nick Juravich, Center for Women’s History
Ladies’ Garments, Women’s Work, Women’s Activism is on view on the 4th floor of New-York Historical Society through July 21, 2019.
The Kheel Center for Labor-Management Archives and Documentation at Cornell University Libraries hold the records of the ILGWU. Learn more about the history of the “union label” from their online exhibit, Union Made: Fashioning America in the Twentieth Century.
Top image credit: Women of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) march in the Labor Day Parade. Center for Puerto Rican Studies, Library & Archive. Hunter College, City University of New York (detail).