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Looking for the Union Label

January 25, 2012

Women at Atlanta’s Merchandise Mart, urging a boycott of Judy Bond Blouses, March 1, 1962.  Licensed photo made publicly available by Cornell University’s Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives

Back when the American garment industry was anchored in the United States, and after the big companies began retreating from the New York City fashion capital and union strongholds, apparel manufacturers hunting for cheap labor drifted South — to states like Georgia and South Carolina and Alabama.

A colorful chapter in that flight occurred in the 1960s in an Alabama factory, Brewton Fashions, Inc., purchased in 1961 by a subsidiary of New York City-based Judy Bond Blouses.

Judy Bond’s exodus wasn’t the first or final one for such highly mobile, labor-intensive companies. When wages rose, clothing factories could quickly pack up shop and move, assembling new work forces from pools of unskilled labor and staying a step ahead of union activity.

When Judy Bond purchased the men’s shirt factory in south Alabama, it had just slipped from a New York contract by the powerful International Ladies Garment Workers Union of America, which called the Brewton plant a “runaway” shop that put union employees back east out of work.

Immediately the ILGW leadership fought back, moving full-time organizers to Brewton and reaching out to a dozen unaffiliated workers at a Birmingham warehouse Judy Bond had leased.

The company meanwhile ratified a new contract with the United Garment Workers of America, the Brewton plant’s union under former owners, and one ILG officials regarded as a company-leaning organization.

Throughout the early 1960s, ILG hammered away at Judy Bond, organizing a nationwide boycott and placing picketers at department stores wherever the blouses were sold. But Alabama workers were divided about the union’s cause:  In this otherwise unidentified picture in the BHC collection, a picketer on Birmingham’s 19th Street North retail district protests the boycott by the “BIG NEW YORK UNION TRYING TO DESTROY ALABAMA INDUSTRIES.”

A woman in Birmingham pickets against the boycott of Alabama-made Judy Bond blouses. The nationwide boycott was organized by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union after the company moved production from New York to a Brewton, Alabama, plant in 1961.

Confrontations between the company and workers sympathetic with ILG, and among workers on both sides, continued.  In several instances at Brewton, women who signed ILG cards or wearing ILG pins were driven physically and sometimes violently from the plant by fellow workers, skirmishes that went unpunished by company supervisors. Employees were fired or threatened with firing; company supervisors made it known they kept tabs on after-hours meetings with ILG organizers.

Judy Bond closed the Birmingham warehouse.  The company itself was ultimately called on the carpet by the National Labor Relations Board for committing a laundry list of violations of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, findings upheld by a U.S. Court of Appeals in 1966.  Brewton objected strenuously that NLRB agents were biased.  The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a further appeal.

Retired ILG official Martin Morand recalls the episode as a failure of U.S. labor law. A handful of women who were unfairly fired during the period rejected reinstatement when it was finally offered, said Morand, Director of ILG’s Southeast Region, 1964-1970.

Morand, a Cornell graduate and career labor leader now living in New York, called the case a “hollow victory.” “It served, from my point of view, to point out the meaninglessness of the labor law in that situation,” he said.  “By 1968, I took the position that we should eliminate the NLRB.”

By the 1960s, the ILG’s 1930s heyday–when northeastern garment workers earned the highest wages and enjoyed a 7-hour workday, retirement fund, and health center–were long gone. The 1947 Taft-Hartley Act had modified many pro-labor provisions of the earlier legislation, and anyway, the American south was just the latest stop on the industry’s way out of the country for cheaper labor south of the border, and in Southeast Asia.

In 1975, the shrinking ILG made a poignant mass appeal for consumer support of union work by producing the catchy, “Look for the Union Label” spot on national TV.

The union label referred back to a time when a businesses displayed union emblems in their storefronts, Morand said.

But no labor ballad could save the domestic clothing industry.  ILG disappeared in 1995, absorbed into a merger of needle trades and hotel workers unions called UNITE HERE, and the much smaller Workers United union.

And Judy Bond?  “The boycott never officially ended,” Morand said. “It was always my impression that no one had ever heard of them, and we made them famous.”

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