The Pennsylvania State University
Cover for the book Fighting for the Union Label

Fighting for the Union Label

The Women’s Garment Industry and the ILGWU in Pennsylvania Kenneth C. Wolensky, Nicole H. Wolensky, and Robert P. Wolensky
  • Copyright: 2002
  • Dimensions: 6 x 9
  • Page Count: 288 pages
  • Illustrations: 52 illustrations/1 map
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-0-271-02167-6
  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-271-02168-3

Hardcover Edition: $69.95
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“The Wolenskys tell the important story of the building of the ILGWU among runaway garment firms in the Wyoming Valley. Fighting for the Union Label is a very significant addition to our understanding of the garment industry in the twentieth century, union organizing among women garment workers, and the deindustrialization in the anthracite region of Pennsylvania.”
“An absorbing biography of a labor movement that fought for workers’ rights for decades, only to see membership decline as the volume of imported apparel rose.”
Fighting for the Union Label is more than the story about the textiles industry in the coal fields; it is an important record of hundreds of thousands of coal region women who went to work to support their families when the mining industry was declining. It is the story of the passion and the resilience of coal crackers: hardworking, honest, industrious men and woman all.”
“This book is a significant addition to the history of the U. S. garment industry and labor movement. By focusing on the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) in the Wyoming Valley of Pennsylvania from the 1940s to the 1960s, the Wolenskys have integrated a ‘non-New York’ story into the canonical history of the ILGWU.”
“A bit academic but an excellent read in spite of that.”
“It is an important book for three reasons. First, to their credit, the authors have broken out of the New York-Chicago-Los Angeles approach to the industry. Second, this book could easily be used in undergraduate courses. By telling the story of workers in the Keystone State in their own voices, it gives students a means of entering their world in a way too few labor histories are capable of. And last, it reminds us of what Herbert Gutman stressed: workers’ voices do matter, and good social history should seek to unearth those voices and present them to the public.”
“All-in-all, this book is fascinating reading, and demonstrates that institutional history is still an important area of study. Well written and researched, this book is highly recommended for every reading list.”

It is no coincidence that the garment industry gained a foothold in Pennsylvania’s hard-coal region as mines were closing or reducing operations. "Runaway" factories, especially ones from Manhattan, set up shop in mining towns where labor was plentiful and unions scarce. By the 1930s, garment factories employed thousands of wives and daughters of unemployed or underemployed coal miners in the Wyoming Valley. Organizing workers would prove difficult for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU).

Fighting for the Union Label tells the story of how workers in the Wyoming Valley, led by Min Lurye Matheson and her husband, Bill, banded together and built one of the largest and most activist movements of garment workers in the ILGWU’s vast network. Workers’ education, political activism, a health care center, and a widely recognized chorus were among the union’s trademarks. Despite the union’s influence, however, the apparel industry migrated to the American South and then overseas in the 1970s and 1980s. Tens of thousands of workers throughout the state and nation would loose their jobs, and sweatshops would become part of the economic landscape in countries like Guatemala.

The first major work on the garment industry and its workers in Pennsylvania, Fighting for the Union Label draws extensively upon the Wyoming Valley Oral History Project (co-directed by Ken and Robert Wolensky) which has collected the reminiscences of more than 325 workers, factory owners, public officials, and others. The story of the dynamic Min Matheson and the rise and fall of the garment industry provides key insights into the deindustrialization of northeastern Pennsylvania.

Kenneth C. Wolensky is a Historian at the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in Harrisburg.

Nicole H. Wolensky is a graduate student in sociology at the University of Iowa.

Robert P. Wolensky is Professor of Sociology and co-director of the Center for the Small City at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Natives of Pennsylvania, the Wolenskys are co-authors of The Knox Mine Disaster: The Final Years of the Northern Anthracite Industry and the Effort to Rebuild a Regional Economy (1999).

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