Social Unionism Lives

Social Unionism Lives

Garment workers at a suburban Chicago factory fight to save their jobs and prove that social unionism is still relevant.


On May 11 hundreds of workers rallied at a suburban Chicago Hart Schaffner & Marx factory, trying to preserve their jobs and the continued operation of the 122-year-old men’s clothing company. Hartmarx Corporation, the parent company of Hart Schaffner & Marx, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in January. Workers fear that Wells Fargo, the main Hartmarx creditor, will force the company into liquidation or starve it of operating funds. The fact that the bank received $25 billion in federal bailout funds lends a special moral and political weight to the workers’ campaign.

Their fight bridges the history of clothing worker unionism, from formative events a century ago to a current battle over its legacy. In the fall of 1910, a walkout by a handful of pants seamers at Hart Schaffner & Marx escalated into a five-month strike by nearly 40,000 Chicago clothing workers. Progressive reformers–including Jane Addams and future New Dealers Harold Ickes and Donald Richberg–backed the strikers. Out of the struggle came a settlement with Hart Schaffner & Marx, the seeds of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union and a labor-liberal alliance that would blossom during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt.

Following the Hart Schaffner & Marx strike, unions transformed the lives of apparel makers by raising wages through industrywide agreements that stabilized hypercompetitive markets. They also provided workers and their families with innovative benefits, including unemployment insurance, union health clinics, nonprofit cooperative housing projects and even summer resorts. In 1923 the Amalgamated Clothing Workers founded its own bank, which continues to operate today. Needle-trade unionists played a central role in the New Deal; they believed that only through state action could economic security be assured and living and working conditions upgraded.

Sadly, just when economic and political circumstances seem propitious for a revitalization of the socially minded unionism that garment workers helped create, an internal fight threatens to sap its momentum. As David Moberg reported [see “Unions, Disunited,” March 9], UNITE HERE–created by the 2004 merger of UNITE, which had combined several textile and garment unions, with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees–has been riven by bitter disputes. In March, after HERE leaders made it clear that they planned to oust Bruce Raynor, who had come from UNITE, as president of the merged group–taking control of the organization and its assets–150,000 workers, mostly former UNITE members, left to create Workers United, the group fighting Hartmarx. Workers United then affiliated with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

As in many divorces, the split brought out the worst in both parties. Former HERE president John Wilhelm and his allies have claimed all the assets that UNITE brought to the merger, including Amalgamated Bank, and tried to get employers to stop dealing with locals that seceded. Raynor, in an apparent effort to force the HERE side into a settlement, tried to turn members of hotel locals in California and other Western states against their leaders. SEIU president Andy Stern threatened to invade industries traditionally in the HERE jurisdiction. Despite recent efforts to resolve the dispute–a settlement proposal by United Food and Commercial Workers president Joseph Hansen that Wilhelm has endorsed; a pledge by Raynor to stop contacting workers who have chosen to stay in UNITE HERE and his offer, along with Stern, to arbitrate outstanding differences–no end to the UNITE HERE fight is in sight. Already the battle has diverted resources from organizational work; created major strains among activists in California, where UNITE HERE and SEIU have strong bases; and tied the unions up in court. Unless the union leaders resolve their quarrel quickly, it may well do yet more damage to labor’s standing at a moment of great opportunity.

The Hartmarx campaign suggests that tectonic shifts in national politics may be creating an opening for the social vision the garment unions embraced. For the first time in a generation, we have a president who openly promotes unionism. When in December workers at Republic Windows & Doors occupied their about-to-be-shuttered Chicago factory, demanding vacation pay and other benefits owed them–an inspiration for the Hartmarx workers–Barack Obama electrified labor by endorsing their demands. (Obama wears Hart Schaffner & Marx suits, having been connected to the firm by Raynor, a longtime supporter.)

Moreover, the reaction to the Hart Schaffner & Marx workers’ insistence that bailout beneficiary Wells Fargo balance social needs with financial imperatives reveals how the political center of gravity is shifting. Rather than being curtly dismissed, as it would have been a year or two ago, their plea has received sympathetic national attention, reflecting rising popular anger at banks that seem indifferent to the fate of the “real economy” of producers and service providers. Workers at a Rochester, New York, factory producing Hickey Freeman clothing, another Hartmarx brand, have voted to join Hart Schaffner & Marx employees in a sit-in strike if Wells Fargo tries to liquidate the company. Politicians have jumped to support the clothing workers, including Illinois Congressman Phil Hare, who worked as a Hartmarx clothing cutter for thirteen years, and Illinois State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, who threatened to take $8 billion of state funds away from Wells Fargo. The refusal of the bank to support selling Hartmarx to a company that would keep its operations intact recently led forty-three Congress members to write Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, urging him to intervene. Given the massive loan of public money to Wells Fargo, the Congress members wrote, “we find it incomprehensible that it would continue to push for the loss of jobs in a viable company.”

The squabbling over the breakup of UNITE HERE might suggest that the social democratic vision of needle-trades workers, which helped create the industrial union movement and animate the New Deal, has run its course. But the Hartmarx fight points to something quite different: the relevance of social unionism in an era when financial and political leaders lost their moral compass. The 1910 Hart Schaffner & Marx strikers demonstrated the power of collective action to give workers better lives, more security and greater say about the world they live in. Their belief that organized labor can help democratize society in the interests of all its citizens once again commands our attention.

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