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Needles and Hoops

A group of women appear with one row of standing women and one row of seated women. They wear matching uniforms and two basketballs appear on the ground in front of the seated women.

The ILGWU women’s basketball team at the Bronx Branch Athletic Club. Source: Kheel Center, International Ladies Garment Workers Union Photographs (1885-1985), under Creative Common license

Today, the fight for social justice in sports tends to concern elite competition because adults generally do not participate in team sports. This was not always so. For much of the twentieth century, especially before suburbanization and television, many adults engaged in baseball, basketball, boxing, and other sports. In the twentieth century, particularly in its early decades, labor unions promoted sports for their members. Unions used sport to foster labor solidarity. The same workers who organized strikes by the hundreds, thousands, and millions, also played ball games. Sports were used to build worker’s identification with unions. Often, though, left-wing political divisions limited the possibilities of unification through sport.

Organized for reform in the garment industry in the first half of the twentieth century, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) worked to abolish child labor, combatted sexual harassment, and formulated social justice for Jewish, Italian, and other immigrant groups. Most famous for its slogan “Look for That Union Label,” the union had a decidedly socialist political bent in its early years, linking itself to the fortunes of the Socialist Party. Activists such as Fannia Cohn sought to bring socialist politics into the union’s cultural spheres, through its Educational Department. As Brian Dolber writes, “They argued that unions should do more than negotiate wages and hours; they needed to offer education, cultural activities, healthcare, and recreation, too.”[1] One of the Educational Department’s most enduring projects was its sports program, which encompassed baseball, gymnastics, basketball, swimming, bowling, and much more.[2] Just as large corporations used sports to build identification with plants in which workers were employed, the ILGWU used sports to build comradery and identification by rank and file workers, beginning in the 1920s.

The ILGWU was not alone in recognizing the power of sports for labor organizing. Even as it lurched rapidly between political positions, the Communist Party in the 1920s attempted early on to create an alternative sports culture in the United States. Its efforts culminated first in the Labor Sports Union and later in various Communist-dominated trade union sports leagues in the Congress for Industrial Organizations (CIO).[3] Unfortunately, both domestic and international events made cooperation between the powerful ILGWU and other unions’ sports programs impossible. The Communists split from the Socialist Party after the Russian Revolution. Beginning in 1926, the Communist Party (CP) attempted to seize control of the union. In the ensuing conflict, many CP activists were expelled from the union. Afterward, the Socialist Party and its Second International became ardently anti-Communist. As the Socialist Party itself faded, ILGWU leaders such as David Dubinsky gradually steered the ILGWU towards more standard center-left politics of the Democratic Party and New Dealism.

However, prior to that fissure, in 1931, Dubinsky traveled to “Red Vienna,” where, amid a non-Leninist socialist movement, the Austro-Marxists had accumulated power. There, loosely affiliated workers’ clubs—devoted to sobriety, self-defense, and sports—dominated the cultural revolution.[4] Worker Sport grew to become a mass movement of egalitarian anti-fascist clubs, affiliated with Social Democratic, or in some cases, Communist parties. The highlight of the International Socialist Congress in Vienna, Dubinsky later remarked, was “a mass spectacle in which thousands upon thousands of Austrian trade unionists took part. It was staged in a huge stadium, with at least a quarter million people watching. I could not get it out of my mind—the mood it created of unity and hope, the friendship it built.” He ordered his assistant Louis Schaffer to replicate the event—which included massive involvement of the many people in union-sponsored activities such as sports teams, bands, mandolin orchestras, choruses, dances, pageants, plays, tours, painting and sculptures, picnics and hikes, travel to points of interest here and to distant lands—within the ILGWU.[5]

The ILGWU vastly expanded its existing educational Unity Centers to include physical activities, especially sports. It established leagues whose teams consisted exclusively of ILGWU workers and affiliates. Dubinsky embraced sports and his lieutenant in the Educational Department, Mark Starr, personally steered the development of softball, baseball, and basketball leagues. Starr wrote in an ILGWU pamphlet, “We know that the comradeship developed on the playing fields will deepen and intensify the emotional tie-up of every member to his organization. We know that the spirit of emulation developed in our contests will lead to a strengthening of the Union to face critical problems which face us now and in the future.” Sports helped foster the personal relationships critical to the union’s function.

Unfortunately, even though the ILGWU helped found the CIO, Dubinsky held on to his deep distrust of Communists, who were at the forefront of organizing the CIO unions during its formative years in the late 1930s. Brian Dolber argues, “Having spent the previous 15 years staving off the left’s infiltration, however, the ILGWU leadership could not envision such collaboration.”[6] This, despite the fact that CIO unions embraced labor sports and built their own labor teams and leagues. As Lizabeth Cohen observes, “[T]he pages of all CIO newspapers were filled with reports of dances, picnics, summer camps, softball teams—the new game of the thirties that ‘everyone could play’—and bowling leagues, the old game of the twenties that welfare capitalists had favored for the same reason.” Union members bowled together; workers from different plants battled in baseball and then picnicked with each other.[7]

In effect, the Socialist-dominated ILGWU and the Communist-influenced CIO unions operated separate sports programs. While the ILGWU was one of the largest and most powerful unions, it operated separately from the CIO and this division is evident in their sports histories. CIO unions organized inter-union baseball and basketball contests in places like Chicago, Cleveland, and New York. The ILGWU operated separate leagues of shop teams, such as the Trade Union Athletic Association in New York City, whose contests featured heavily in the sports page of the CP’s Daily Worker. Replicating the division between the Second and Third Internationals, this division limited the ability of the left to build an effective anti-fascist and pro-worker program. During WWII and its aftermath, the ILGWU and the U.S. State Department helped push Communists and other radicals out of unions such as the United Auto Workers. As the influence of the Communists waned, radical labor sports crumbled in the United States. Though the old vestiges of ILGWU sports continued for some time, they too were weakened by corporate pursuit of cheap labor. Like Worker Sport in Europe, labor sports symbolized the possibilities of interwar organization from below and the failure of Socialist movements in building a truly liberatory democratic society.

James W.J. Robinson is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at Northeastern University. His dissertation concerns the history of American sports organizing within left-wing movements in the interwar period.

[1] Brian Dolber, Media and Culture in the U.S. Jewish Labor Movement: Sweating for Democracy in the Interwar Era (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) 54.

[2] Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990) 177-79.

[3] William J. Baker, “Muscular Marxism and the Chicago Counter-Olympics of 1932,” in The New American Sport History: Recent Approaches and Perspectives, ed. S. W. Pope (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1997) 285-99.

[4] Julius Deutsch, Antifascism, Sports, Sobriety: Forging A Militant Working-Class Culture, ed. Gabriel Kuhn (Oakland CA: PM Press, 2017).

[5] Gus Tyler, Look For the Union Label: A History of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1995) 197.

[6] Dolber, 144.

[7] Cohen, 340-42.