The decline of the international ladies’ garment workers’ union: Shifting workers’ identities in Montreal and New York City

Thumbnail Image



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title


University of New Brunswick


A part of the labour movement for ninety-five years, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) worked to better the conditions of garment workers across North America. Although they saw gains for workers in the garment industry over fifty years of progress, in the last forty years of the ILGWU’s history, the union faced a dramatic decline. Large membership losses and a weakening of negotiating power in the industry left the ILGWU a shell of their former self. What happened to this union? This declension did not begin with rapid membership decline, but a steady drop in members was a symptom of missed opportunities and misunderstandings on the part of union leadership of the increasingly diverse needs of garment workers across North America. Using the ILGWU in Montréal and New York City from the 1960s to the 1980s, this dissertation highlights the intrinsic difficulties of with transnational unionization efforts in the late 20th century. The ILGWU’s could not maintain a collective identity for garment worker across North America. Shifting identities made it difficult for the union to maintain their membership and motivate nonunionized workers to join the organization. The decline of this powerful and important labour organization offers critical insights into women’s history and labour activism at the end of the 20th century and reveals new elements of the history of capitalism, especially as it relates to ethnicity and gender.