International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union

ILGWU picket line for Judy Bond strike
Barbara Jenkins Pickett, Annie Mautia, and Mona Walker sing "We Didn't Go to College" in St. Louis
Kenneth Billups rehearses union members for a show in St. Louis
Barbara Jenkins Pickett, Mona Walker, and Annie Mautia welcome David Dubinsky to St. Louis

Theater related collections at SIUC include the records of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) Southwestern Region Educational Department. Donated primarily by its original director, Doris Preisler Wheeler, they include minutes of the Educational Committee from 1937 to 1942, correspondence, programs, promotional advertising materials, mimeographed announcements, newspaper clippings, song sheets, and photographs. A large part of the collection relates to the one-day institutes sponsored by the department to provide educational opportunities to members.

Formed in 1900, the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) worked to secure higher wages, shorter hours, safer working conditions, and health benefits for its members, mostly women. ILGWU gained recognition and influence after leading two successful mass strikes in 1909 and 1910 and becoming politically active following the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, in which 146 workers, mostly young Jewish and Italian immigrant women, perished when they were trapped by locked doors or fell from the ninth floor. 

In 1918, ILGWU created an Educational Department offering classes in labor history, music, dance, drama, and literature. In 1936, ILGWU acquired the Princess Theatre at 39th St. and 6th Ave. in New York and renamed it the Labor Stage. Union members formed the ILGWU Players to produce plays, drawing large audiences.

Producer Louis Shaffer commissioned Harold Rome to write the musical revue Pins And Needles, casting union members from ILGWU's performing arts classes. Combining satire with pro-labor sentiment, the hit revue ran on Broadway from 1937 to 1940 and was performed for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1938.

After ILGWU established the Southwestern Region with headquarters in St. Louis in 1934, Doris Preisler (later, Wheeler) organized its Educational Department in 1935. The department staged performances and began offering one-day institutes held at regional colleges and universities in 1948, with the first held at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Plays directed by choral director Kenneth Billups featured a majority of African-American women.

Barbara Jenkins Pickett was a dramatics department star who served as a cultural ambassador for the union, honoring national ILGWU president David Dubinsky during his 1949 visit to St. Louis with an ensemble performance. Under the leadership of David Dubinsky (president 1932 - 66), the union grew from 45,000 members to almost half a million.


International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union Southwestern Region Educational Department records, Special Collections Research Center, Southern Illinois University Carbondale

Keona K. Ervin (2016) We Rebel: Black Women, Worker Theater, and Critical Unionism in Wartime St. Louis, Souls, 18:1, 32-58, DOI: 10.1080/10999949.2016.1162561

Jewish Women's Archive Encyclopedia entries for ILGWU and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

Crozier-Fitzgerald, Francesca. April 4, 2011. Remembering Victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire: Italian and Jewish Immigrants Unite. i-Italy Italian/American Digital Project.

The Kheel Center ILGWU Collection at Cornell University

Chamber, Jonathan L. 2006. Messiah of the New Technique: John Howard Lawson, Communism, and American Theatre, 1923-1937. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Hyman, Colette A. Staging Strikes: Workers’ Theatre and the American Labor Movement. 1997. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Saal, Ilka. 2007. New Deal Theatre: The Vernacular Tradition in American Political Theatre. New York: Palgrave McMillan

International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union