DUBINSKY's book is in essence a memoir dictated by the longtime head of the Interantional Ladies' Garment Workers Union to the New York Times's labor reporter A.H. Raskin, and very readably re-written by the latter. Out of the Sweatshop is a documentary collection of journalistic pieces, speeches and official records, compiled by a veteran union member who formerly edited an ILGWU publication. Between them, the two books embrace a history of labor relations in what is formally called the garment industry.
Insiders, however, refer to it as "the rag business" - a label as tart and crisp as a kosher pickle. It was, and is, a risky trade, with profit or bankruptcy dependent on the ability to guess what women will be wearing six months in the future. An industry without trusts, but also without predictability; a lender's nightmare.
When Dubinsky entered it in 1911 it sprawled uncouthly over lower Manhattan, divided among hundreds of "manufacturers" whose establishments, where children and adult workers crouched for long hours over machines and piles of goods, fought for space near dirty windows and toilets, and coughed away their lives. Many of their bosses were recent graduates of the sweatshop themselves, a bare step above the pit, knowing that they could drop back if costs or prices wavered by a nickel a garment. Both bosses and workers came largely from the pungent, ambitious tide Russian-Jewish humanity that engulfed the lower East Side.
From these roots the union grew. Thousands of these workers had already, in Tsarist Poland, sharpened their instincts for survival, their dialectic of revolt, their convictions that progress could be fought for and won. Such a one was Dubinsky, born Dobnievsky in 1892. At 14, he was the hungry child of a prayerful but poor Lodz baker, who dragged him from school to work. At 15, he was a leader in the bakers union. At 16, not unexpectedly, he was a political prisoner enroute to Siberia. He escaped via a network of relatives and revolutionaries, then followed an older brother to America.
Over here he learned to be a cutter, joined the garment union that had been created in 1900 and was seasoned in the bitter strikes of 1909 and 1910, fighting not only for money but for things that cash alone could not provide - dignity in the workplace, leisure for mind and body to grow in, protection of the weak.
They were hard goals to reach in an unstable industry and economy. World War I brought some good contracts. But the '20s, no jazz age for textile and clothing workers, tore at the fabric of peace. While Dubinsky worked his way in the union, he became part of an endless struggle against corner-cutting employers, racketeers, and Communists. He hated the last-named with the special zest of a former Russian Socialist. When, in 1932, he became its president, the ILGWU was, like the whole country, deep into hard times.
Then came what seemed a golden 20 years. New-Deal-blessed organizing drives that had shops falling in line. Dubinsky a power in the national labor movement, with both AFL and CIO contacts. Dubinsky a creator of the American Labor (later the Liberal) Party in New York State. Dubinsky dealing with top-level Republican and Democratic politicians one day, and the next with government economists and social planners from once-remote sanctuaries like Harvard and Wellesley.
And the union driving and innovating, Broadway crowds laughed at the all-ILG cast of review called Pins and Needles , bringing the mocking anti-establishment humor of East Side streets into the main-stream. Fed by another war boom, the ILGWU won pensions and health plans, built a union vacation resort in the Poconos, financed housing projects - even shared the funding of one, in Puerto Rico, with the Rockefellers.
It seemed to prove that the United States was the home of what Fortune called "the permanent revolution," the capitalist lion lying down in dollar-green pastures with the proleterian lamb. Dubinsky and others even worked with the State Department (and sometimes, unwillingly, the CIA) to build non-Communist unions abroad, and guiding them away from their gullible suspicions of the profit motive.
Alas, the '60s and '70s brought a downturn. The rag business was still easy to decentralize. Union-busters could subcontract work, if not to Hester Street walkups or Carolina hill towns, then to Taipei and Hong Kong. The union was gored (and so was New York City) on the cruel spur of thousands of lost jobs. Inflation turned benefits into pittances. A new generation of members, Hispanic and black in good-part, looked to their aging Jewish and Italian leadership for help which could not be delivered. Some members, working seasonally at least minimum wages, could only survive on supplementary public assistance. A cycle had been run from pain to pan, the modern despair less agonizing, but less softened by faith in the future. A cycle perhaps, of liberalism.
Dubinsky stepped down, aged 74, in 1966. These recollections are consistently interesting, but limited. Like most spiky leaders telling a tale from their own viewpoint, he lingers on accomplishment, admits few mistakes, gives no quarter. (An exception is the inclusion of an interview with a onetime Communist enemy, who later switched to Dubinsky's side.)
Yet Dubinsky, in retirement was aware of gnawing problems. Commenting to Raskin once on the low wage levels in the garment trade, he asked: "Where did we go wrong?"
Perhaps the beginnings of an answer can be found in these very pages. Dubinsky built on three pillars of faith. One was that American business, as Samuel Gompers had insisted, would eventually see its harmony of interest with stabilizing, responsible unions. A second was that technological progress would creat more prosperity than it destroyed jobs, would englarge the pie so that workers got more from their slice without leaving less forcapital. And a third was that alliance with political liberalism would be fruitful, and supplement what bargaining won with a struggle of minimim wage, workmen's compensation, and other favorably laws.
Three props of liberal belief: enlightened capitalism, life-enhancing technology, and the progressive state. Let the reader think about these for a while, and then pick for himself Dubinsky's question. "Where did we go wrong?"