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Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 23.1 (2002) 46-66

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ILGWU Labor Organizers:
Chicana and Latina Leadership in the Los Angeles Garment Industry

María A. Gutierrez de Soldatenko

Researchers studying the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) and female European immigrant activists at the turn of the century have noted the poor record of this union with respect to women's participation. 1 Latina leaders in the ILGWU tell a similar story about the union in the 1990s. During this period the ILGWU in Los Angeles claimed attempts to organize and represent a predominantly Latina labor force while refusing to acknowledge the contributions, talents, and potential of Latina and Chicana leaders working for them.

While many studies have focused historically on the struggles of European immigrant union leaders in the ILGWU, we do not have a documented history focusing fully on the participation of women of color in the union. 2 Several studies have examined the history and development of the Mexican American and Latina leadership within the ILGWU in Los Angeles. 3 These authors' works celebrate the contributions of Latinas and Chicanas within the historical context of the union, and they are critical of the ILGWU's lack of vision concerning Latinas and Latinos. They also document the labor mobilizations of women in Los Angeles garment industry. Hector Delgado, for example, completely rejects the old stereotypical portrayal of Latino and Latina immigrants working in Los Angeles and shows the ways in which Latinos and Latinas organize. 4

Many authors have blamed Mexican and Latina women for the lack of unionization, insisting Latina culture is to blame for women's lack of organ- ized or political participation in unions. They argue that Mexican and Latina women are backward and ignorant, difficult to organize, and are not leaders. 5 Yet the evidence demonstrates the active participation of Latina and Chicana garment workers since early times. In both California and Texas, Mexican origin women have organized in independent groups such as La Mujer Obrera or Fuerza Unida. In Mexico City garment workers organized La Diecinueve de Septiembre, an independent union. 6

My purpose in this essay is not to criticize the union for their policies and [End Page 46] actions that continue to perpetuate a system of gender and racial inequality in their ranks. 7 Rather, I want to explore the continual contributions of Latinas within the ILGWU, even in light of difficult union policies affecting Latinas. It is important to document the ways in which Latina and Chicana leaders contribute to the labor struggle in Los Angeles despite the barriers they confront in everyday life and within the union bureaucracy. Latina and Chicana leaders teach us about persistence, intelligence, and courage. I hope union leaders in the newly formed union unite will take note and begin to value more highly Latinas in their union. 8

I met Latinas working for the ILGWU beginning in 1988 while working on my dissertation. In 1992, as a postdoctoral fellow, I had the opportunity to closely observe the Justice Center, created in 1990 by ILGWU to offer free legal advice and provide support for nonunion workers. Eventually I interviewed twenty respondents at the Justice Center, both paid staff and members. From these I made composites of their cases in order to protect their identities. These findings are part of a larger ethnographic study on Latinas in the garment industry in Los Angeles. My method is qualitative and represents a case study in the ILGWU's Justice Center before it was dismantled in 1999. Latina garment workers at the Justice Center not only knew about labor rights; they also knew about the effectiveness or lack of organizing strategies. Some workers had experienced labor struggles before they came into contact with the ILGWU, and they represented the most interesting and inspiring part of the study. These Latinas are crucial in any organizing efforts, and the prospects for workers' mobilization in the industry lay in their hands.

One of the first problems...


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