We Are One

Honoring Immigrant Garment Workers

SECTION 1: Factory Work and Union Culture—1970s and 1980s

To understand the strike we need to ask: What was the work like? How did union organizers create a culture of solidarity? Immigrants have always been key to a thriving garment industry in the U.S, and in the 1970s and 1980s the work was still hard on body and mind, conditions often unsafe, and wages not sufficient. The International Ladies Garment Workers Union, a leader in advocating for immigrant rights, was active in Chinatown in many of the ways it had been in the Lower East Side decades before. Classes to improve English fluency, assistance with citizenship applications, and a variety of social and cultural activities all helped engage workers. There were 25,000 Chinese garment workers in NYC by 1980; more than 80 percent were women; unlike the Jewish and Italian young women who came before, most of these workers in Chinatown were married.