IT IS NO exaggeration to say that David Dubinsky, who died yesterday at the age of 90, stood for all that is best in the American labor movement. Under his leadership, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union became not only a forceful and effective advocate for some of the country's most vulnerable workers, but also an example of integrity in union management. Mr. Dubinsky's influence on the broader labor movement also contributed importantly to establishing organized labor's record of commitment to social justice.
Mr. Dubinsky joined the ILGWU in the early days of this century, when the sweatshop was a fixture of the garment industry. He rose to the presidency of the union in the early 1930s, when workers' rights to organize and bargain collectively had still not been established by law. The union he took over was racked by internal strife and the difficulties of organizing a group of workers that many labor experts regarded as too difficult to manage.
Mr. Dubinsky quickly strengthened union ranks, put the organization on a sound financial footing and began winning contract victories for his abysmally low-paid members. He also joined with other union leaders in the organizing strikes of the '30s that became the principal impetus behind the Wagner Act, which legally established labor's basic organizing rights.
In a fragmented and sometimes disreputable industry, Mr. Dubinsky fought continually -- and successfully -- to keep racketeers and Stalinists from gaining a foothold in his union. Though he could fight hard for his workers when necessary, he was not an apostle of confrontation, preferring to settle his disputes with industry peaceably in a way that recognized the mutual interdependence of management and labor. "Industry-mindedness" is what he called his approach.
While other labor leaders came to dominate labor's bread-and-butter issues, Mr. Dubinsky continued to exert a strong influence on the movement's intellectual agenda. "D.D.," as he was known in the labor movement, didn't like to be called a "labor statesman" -- a term he thought condescending -- but that's what he was.
It will be noted at a time when the labor movement is struggling over in Poland that Mr. Dubinsky himself started off his career as a labor organizer in Lodz, Poland, an area then controlled by czarist Russia. His activities earned him more than a year in prison and banishment to Siberia. In his autobiography, Mr. Dubinsky recalled his appearance before a congressional committee in 1940 at which a hostile member suggested that he be classified as a subversive because he was born in Russia. "I stressed my pride that I had become an American by choice and not by the accident of birth," Mr. Dubinsky wrote. "That was always my proudest choice." It was a good choice for America as well.