Socks, Shirtwaists and Saving the Union

So Much Depends Upon a Decent Pair of Socks

"Look for the union label..."

If you are of a certain generation, you'll recognize those words instantly as the first line of a song that became a 1970s advertising icon.

Sung by a swelling chorus of lovely ladies (and a few guys) of all colors, shapes and sizes, it was the anthem of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.

Airing in the 1970s, as American unions began to confront the inexorable drain of jobs to cheap foreign labor markets, the song ringingly implored us to look for the union label when shopping for clothes ("When you are buying a coat, dress or blouse"). Seeing these earnest women, thinking of them at their sewing machines, made some of us race to the closet and check our clothes for that ILGWU imprimatur. ("It says we're able to make it in the USA.")

After all, these were ladies who could put in a hard day's work and then come home and bake one hell of a pie. They were the daughters of Rosie the Riveter. Owning the clothes they made just seemed, well, righteous.

With all the talk abut union-busting and collective bargaining in the controversy over public employee unions, those union ladies of the ILGWU came to mind when I was looking for some socks the other day -- even though socks weren't mentioned in the song. Hunting for warmth in this winter of our discontent, I found it difficult to find a pair of socks that were made in America, just as we all know it is increasingly challenging to locate other American-made articles of clothing, household products, electronics or sports equipment. This, of course, is not news. It's globalization, baby! (Blaming this problem entirely on the unions, as many Americans do, is a simplistic and convenient misrepresentation of a much more complex issue.)

I have never been one to paste a "Buy American -- The Job You Save May Be Your Own" bumper sticker on my cars (which for the most part, I must add, have been foreign-made). But in the past few years, my wife and I have been making a conscious decision to "Buy Local." That means shopping at the local hardware store, sporting goods store and especially the farmers market near our Vermont home, where we feel like we are not only getting fresher produce but also participating in a community. We like to buy things from our neighbors. Even better if they make or grow them.

I struck gold with my sock problem when I finally found some wonderful Merino socks that were not only made in America, but also made in Vermont! They weren't cheap but they were on special -- "Buy 3 Get 1 Free" -- so I took four pair. And yes, I love my Darn Tough socks.

But here's the point. Whether it is socks or solar panels, the task of rebuilding America's manufacturing base is obviously one key to the problem of unemployment and low-wage jobs facing the country. It would be incredibly naïve to think that buying four pairs of locally produced socks will make a big difference. But small acts add up to movements. In the past few months, as my wife and I have become far more label-conscious, we've put down many an item that was foreign-made, either doing without or expanding the search.

Lately, with a little effort -- and some gentle nudging to merchants to show me something made in America -- I've found some small prizes: a nice pair of cycling shorts made in High Point, N.C.; a road bike built in Pennsylvania; sneakers still turned out in an American plant.

Admittedly, some concessions are necessary -- unless you want to go the Gandhi route and wear homespun. But I don't do loincloths very well.

Now, as a political statement, buying homegrown socks doesn't quite rank with joining the March on Washington or going on a hunger strike for peace. It's one small step. But maybe it is the first step that begins a long journey -- and in comfortable socks!

So back to those singing ladies -- and a final point on labor history and the current headlines. The International Ladies Garment Worker Union was born in 1900, in the midst of the often-violent period of early 20th century labor organizing when brutal working conditions and child labor were the norm in America's mines and factories. One of the companies the union attempted to organize was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Greenwich Village, which employed many poor and mostly immigrant women. A walkout against the firm in 1909 helped strengthen the union's rolls and led to a union victory in 1910. But the Triangle Shirtwaist Company -- which would chain its doors shut to control its workers -- earned infamy when a fire broke out on March 25, 1911 and 146 workers, most of them young women, were trapped in the flaming building and died, some leaping to their deaths. The tragedy helped galvanize the trade union movement and especially the ILGWU.

As the 100th anniversary of that dreadful event approaches, it is worth remembering that American prosperity was built on the sweat, tears and blood of working men and women. It is a piece of history that should be part of any discussion of the future of workers' unions and their rights.

Cornell University's Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation offers a web exhibit on the Triangle Factory Fire;

And on February 28, 2011, the American Experience on PBS aired a documentary film about the tragedy and the period.