This article examines the historical circumstances surrounding the unionization of New York City's laundry workers in the 1930s, focusing on the different approaches taken by Communist organizers, feminist activists of the Women's Trade Union League, and established union leaders in the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA). The successful drive to organize more than thirty thousand laundry workers in 1937 launched an experiment in industrial unionism within a service industry composed primarily of women and people of color. The article explores the factors that made organization possible and the subsequent evolution of the Laundry Workers Joint Board within the institutional culture of the ACWA, detailing how the ACWA integrated the new affiliate into a bureaucratic union structure that marginalized the leadership of African Americans, women, and Communists, and failed to challenge the longstanding patterns of racial and gender discrimination within the industry. While workers saw significant improvements following unionization, the tensions between rank-and-file members and union leaders underline some of the limitations of mid-twentieth-century US industrial unionism for women and people of color.
“The Democratic Initiative”: The Promises and Limitations of Industrial Unionism for New York City's Laundry Workers, 1930 – 1950
Jenny Carson, Nell Geiser; “The Democratic Initiative”: The Promises and Limitations of Industrial Unionism for New York City's Laundry Workers, 1930 – 1950. Labor 1 December 2011; 8 (4): 65–87. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/15476715-1377005
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