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Women’s History Month Interview with Evy Dubrow

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On the 86th anniversary of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, Evy Dubrow, former legislative director for the Union of Needle Trades, Industrial, and Textile Employees, UNITE (formerly the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union) shares her 40 years of experiences as an activist, trade unionist and lobbyist.

Segment Subjects (keywords for the segment): Dubrow, ILG, lobbyist

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This week is the 86th anniversary of the Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City. People may know the history of this fire, where 146 young women, mainly Jewish and Italian immigrants, perished in a fire at the Shirtwaist Factory plant because they couldn’t get out of the factory.

Well, 11 years ago, on the 75th anniversary, I did a piece on the Shirtwaist Factory fire and a vigil that has been held every year since then. It was held this week. It was held 11 years ago. It has been held ever since 1911, when the fire took place. I produced this piece with Kathy Dobie. And after this, we’re going to go to a woman who’s part of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, now part of UNITE, the new union, who will talk about the history of union activism and women in this country, which was sparked by this Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

PAULINE PEPE: I worked right near where the fire was. There was cutters there. They were cutting the material. And as soon as they were just going out, it was time to go home. It was 4:00 on Saturday.

AMY GOODMAN: Pauline Pepe is a 94-year-old survivor of the Triangle fire.

PAULINE PEPE: I saw the fire in the tables, where they were all full with lingerie material, you know, and that had come up in a flame. When I saw that, I ran out. I went to the door that was closed. I didn’t know that was closed. I went there, knocked on the door. Closed. I just stood there 'til they opened it. Forty people going down the steps, we all tumbling one right after another. And I saw people throwing themselves from the window. And as soon as we went down, we couldn't get out, because the bodies were coming down. It was terrible.

KATHY DOBIE: The women that died that late afternoon were young Jewish and Italian immigrants. When the fire broke out, they tried to escape down the stairs but found the doors had been locked. The owners believed that, given the chance, workers would sneak out with stolen material, and union organizers would sneak in.

AMY GOODMAN: Some of the women climbed onto the single fire escape. It collapsed. As onlookers watched, women fell nine stories to the sidewalk below. Inside the factory, the fire spread quickly, and with no exit left to them, the women climbed through the windows and leapt to their death.

While some union members walked in the vigil, others took buses to a Brooklyn cemetery, where seven unidentified Triangle victims lie buried. Union members paid their respects and read the stone marker above the women’s graves.

MONTAGE OF VOICES: “In sympathy and sorry, citizens of New York raise this monument over the grave of unidentified women and children who, with 139 others, perished by fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, Washington Place, March 25th, 1911.”

AMY GOODMAN: The Triangle Shirtwaist fire, coupled with the brutal exploitation of the sweatshops, spurred a rapid growth of new laws and also trade union organizing, especially of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, which had been established in 1909. The fire was in 1911, and it really grew tremendously after that fire.

One young crusader who joined the ILG in the 1950s was Evelyn Dubrow, who quickly became a key player in fashioning national legislation to protect workers and their families. As part of Women’s History Month, today on Democracy Now! we’re pleased to be joined by Evy Dubrow for a look back at her own experiences as an activist, a trade unionist and a lobbyist in Washington. For 40 years, Evy Dubrow was the legislative director for the ILGWU, now known as the Union of Needle Trades, Industrial, and Textile Employees, as it has joined with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union. And in that role, she played a key role in pushing for those social gains, like Medicaid and Medicare, that are presently under assault in today’s Congress.

I want to welcome you, Evy Dubrow, to Democracy Now! And why don’t we begin just with a simple question: how did you get involved with union activism?

EVELYN DUBROW: Well, actually, I’ve been in the labor movement for 50 years, with a brief interval when I was in Americans for Democratic Action as one of the founders, and then director of organization briefly, and then state director for ADA in New York. I started in the labor movement in the Textile Workers Organizing Committee in New Jersey in 1938 as a kind of a person who, having done newspaper work in the area while I was going to college, knew most of the politicians, the ministers, the rabbis, the priests, the police, etc. And when the Textile Workers Organizing Committee director, Carl Holman, came in, he had a friend of mine who was on the staff who suggested that I might be helpful in the organizing drives. I stayed with the Textile Workers Organizing Committee until about 1942, when I became assistant to the president of the Committee on Industrial Organization, the CIO in New Jersey. I was there 'til 1947, left to go to Washington for ADA, and it was there I met the leaders of the ILG. And when I decided in 1956 that I wanted to leave ADA, I was offered a job by President David Dubinsky, who had been very active in ADA, and Gus Tyler, whom I knew, who was the political director. That's how I came on the staff of the ILG. I was there for only about six months, when President Dubinsky wanted me to go to Washington to work on a very important amendment to our union. And he decided that the ILG needed a voice in Washington, and so he decided that I should spend a majority of my time lobbying for the ILG and, for that matter, the AFL-CIO.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what Americans for Democratic Action was?

EVELYN DUBROW: Yes. Americans for Democratic Action was founded by James Loeb, who had organized the Union for Democratic Action, when I was in college, to help finance the fight against Franco in Spain. And during my college years, I collected money for the Loyalists in Spain who were fighting Franco. From that Union for Democratic Action, Jim Loeb decided that we needed a kind of a liberal political organization, not necessarily connected with either the Republican or Democratic Party, but to be a haven for people who were liberals who had ideas and who felt that they could have an impact on the law — making the laws of the country and participating in a number of campaigns that were important.

Now, among the founders of ADA were people like Paul Porter, Eleanor Roosevelt, Leon Henderson, a lot of the New Deal people, who were then, kind of having left the New Deal — and the Fair Deal, for that matter — felt that this was a good organization to have. And so, in 1947, as I say, I came down to Washington and shortly became director of organization for ADA. A number of people who later became very top leaders, like a Hubert Humphrey, was a founder of it, a Joseph Rauh, who is a well-known civil rights lawyer. The roster of people and leaders in ADA was really a very prestigious roster.

AMY GOODMAN: Yet, you left ADA to join the ILG.

EVELYN DUBROW: I left ADA, yeah, because my heart really was in the labor movement. My father was a very good union member. He was a carpenter and later a builder in New Jersey, and a socialist to boot. So I had a pretty good background on why labor was important and why it was important to support the rights of people who wanted to join a union, particularly since Franklin Delano Roosevelt had decreed that if a majority of workers in any plant felt they wanted to get together and join an organization, that they should have the right to do that. Out of that came the National Labor Relations Act. And out of that came the National Labor Relations Board, which is kind of the policing organization to make sure that workers who want to join unions have a right, that employers who might have some grievance against a union could also call on the NLRB for assistance. And generally, it was an outgrowth of President Roosevelt’s philosophy on the rights of people in a democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: In 1956, you began lobbying for many different issues at a time when the minimum wage was $1, is that right?

EVELYN DUBROW: That’s right. It had gone to a dollar in 1955, just shortly before I joined the ILG staff.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about what the word “lobbyist” means, to begin with.

EVELYN DUBROW: Well, let me tell you where it comes from. And incidentally, I want to indicate that I have never called myself a “legislative representative.” I’ve always been very proud of the fact that I’m a lobbyist. The term comes from the time when people who wanted to petition their government or members of Congress literally had to stand in the lobbies of — for instance, the lobby of the Capitol or in the state lobbies, in order to be able to see their elected representatives. So it was kind of a natural thing that people doing that would be called “lobbyists.” And that term has existed for many, many years. And basically, I resent the fact that people consider it a rather, you know, kind of a term that indicates cheating, unfairness, pressure, etc. And I say to you that since we are a representative government in Congress, that lobbyists have a right to petition their government for either themselves or for organizations. It stems from the democracy of which we are a part.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think some lobbyists for special interests have helped make “lobbyist” a dirty word? And there are — are there those you object to?

EVELYN DUBROW: Oh, sure. I don’t object to anybody who lobbies, because I think it’s an inherent right, as I say, to petition the government. But I think there are people who have used that profession very badly and, as a result, have been accused of — lobbyists have been accused of bribery. They’ve been accused of taking people out to entertain them in order to get politicians to do things for them. But I would say, by and large, in the number of years that I have been lobbying, people like that are very far and few between. Corporations may occasionally use people whose tactics are not exactly what I would say kosher. But on the whole, I think most people who lobby try to do a job for the organization they represent. And if they are doing things that are not exactly legitimate, it’s not because they necessarily decide to do it, but because the heads of the organizations which they represent may condone that kind of conduct. The labor movement does not condone that kind of conduct, if there is a lobbyist in the labor movement who is not living up to the belief that we represent workers and that we need to be like Caesar’s wife, above reproach.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Evy Dubrow, who, for the last 40 years, has been a proud lobbyist in Congress, lobbying for issues supportive of workers and civil rights legislation in this country. I wanted to ask —

EVELYN DUBROW: And women. And women.

AMY GOODMAN: So, tell me about the issues in Congress that you’re proudest of, the victories that you’ve had, but also the losses. What are the landmark moments for you over these last 40 years in what you’ve accomplished in Congress?

EVELYN DUBROW: Well, I think the first one was the reason I was sent down to Washington by President Dubinsky. That was to get an amendment to the Landrum-Griffin bill, which was supposed to curtail unionists as part of the Taft-Hartley Act. And I’m not going to go into that, because it would take all afternoon. But the Landrum-Griffin amendment to the Taft-Hartley Act said that secondary boycotts — in other words, boycotting an organization that was literally not on strike, but because it had an interest in the whole business — was to be outlawed. Now, in the garment industry, which I represented, because it was the union I represented, there was a very close relationship between the jobber, who was the main person, and the contractor to whom the jobber sent work. And if we could not, if there was a strike with a jobber, also strike his contractors, or vice versa, if the contractor caused a strike and we could not picket the jobber, that would make our rights to unionize that much more difficult.

So I went down to Washington, and since President Dubinsky had known Senator Kennedy at the time, I went to see Senator Kennedy, who agreed to offer the amendment on the Senate side. On the House side, Congressman Carl Elliott, who was then chair of the Subcommittee on Labor Relations on it, of the Education and Labor Committee, introduced it on the House side. And we were able to get it passed. And the amazing part about getting it passed is we not only had the support of senators who were pro-labor, mostly Democrats, but we had the support of such Republicans who were not considered necessarily pro-labor, like Senator John McClellan of Arkansas, John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky, Senator Barry Goldwater, who had an amazing interest in this amendment because he knew about the garment industry. His people and his parents had a big store in Phoenix, and because it was a store that used a good many of the garments that were sold on Seventh Avenue, and he and his sister had been sent to Seventh Avenue to study how garments were made, how they were shipped, etc. And he was very sympathetic to the amendment, so that we had really bipartisan support, and it passed. That was one of the first things I did and one of the amendments I was most proud of getting passed.

Then, of course, there was the civil rights legislation, in which we were very concerned, because our industry and our union had people who came from all over the world to be in the garment union or the garment industry because they did not have to know the English language to be able to do — make a garment. And I want to say right now that while it was a low-wage industry, and still is in many cases, it’s a very highly skilled industry. A predominant number of the workers in the industry were women. The men were mostly the cutters — they cut the patterns — or the pressers, who did the pressing. But the actual manufacture of the garments were made by women. And we had them, as I say, from all over the world. And we have continued to attract them to our industry and our union.

AMY GOODMAN: Evy Dubrow, we have to break, but we’re going to come back to you. Evy Dubrow, formerly the legislative director for the Union of Needle Trades, Industrial, and Textile Employees, UNITE, which is the two unions, ILGWU and Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, which are now united as one. We’ll be back in 60 seconds.


AMY GOODMAN: You are listening to Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue with our Women’s History Month special with Evy Dubrow, a longtime union activist, lobbying in Washington for more than 40 years, one of the proud lobbyists, proud to call herself a lobbyist. She is now with UNITE, for 40 years, the legislative director for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, which, Evy Dubrow, you were saying is a special kind of union.

EVELYN DUBROW: Ours was a very social union. We were concerned not only with our members while they were at work eight hours a day, but also where they lived, how they managed, what happened to their children, etc. As a result, we were most proud of the kind of legislation that dealt with not only the wages and working conditions of our members, but we were concerned with housing. We were concerned with education. We were concerned with retirement for our members. We were in the vanguard of the first retirement contracts with employers, holidays, vacations, etc. And as a result of that, fights on minimum wage, fights on civil rights, education legislation, all were a part of the job that I had to do. And I was very proud of the kind of legislation I was able to work on.

We also were very much concerned with sweatshops. That’s been a continuing problem that we’ve had in our union, particularly. As a matter of fact, the ILG was organized because of the horrible conditions in sweatshops. And for a while there, we thought we had it contained in this country. Now we are fighting sweatshops in other countries, but there has been an increase in sweatshops in this country, so that we have a great big campaign going against sweatshops.

Always, the instructions from the officers of my union were that we just weren’t concerned with narrow pieces of legislation that would only affect our union, that as part of the labor union — I’m sorry, the labor movement, it was important for me to not only cooperate but participate in helping the AFL-CIO in its legislative program, but also the individual international unions.

Of course, we were particularly concerned with legislation dealing with women, because so many of our members were women. And so, family and medical leave was one of the great issues in which I took pride that we were able to participate and get the bill finally passed after it had been vetoed three times by Republican presidents.

The whole business of education, not just elementary education, but high school and college education, was a big thing with our union. Housing — I can remember when we not only used our funds in the union to invest in housing for low-income workers, and there is a housing project in New York City called Penn Station South, which was built by funds from the ILG and has since been turned over to the City, where our members and officers could get apartments, very decent, beautiful apartments, for low rents. The Amalgamated had the same thing. They had apartments that they built up in the Bronx. And so, even UNITE is concerned with the whole matter of how people live, as far as housing is concerned.

We have always had been interested in international problems. And as a result of that, the ILG and the Amalgamated have been very active in the International Confederation of Trade Unions, as well as the International Confederation of Textile, Garment and Leather Workers — excuse me — which means that we participate in conferences and in campaigns to help garment workers all over the world get the kinds of rights we’ve been able to get for our members in our unions.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you, Evy Dubrow, how Congress has changed over the 40 years that you have wandered its halls with such purpose.

EVELYN DUBROW: Well, I must say that I am very upset about what I consider the present atmosphere in Congress. When I first came down, my feeling was that, as a lobbyist, I had to see as many members of the House and Senate as I could, that I was there to secure votes for the bills in which I was interested and also to carry out the instructions of the officers and general executive board of my union between conventions and to work on the resolutions that were passed by the convention. And so, my feeling was that I ought to seek votes from as many members of the House and Senate as I could.

And I will say that for a majority of the years I was in lobbying the House and Senate members, I had a great respect for them, because while they might fight with each other or against each other on the floor of both the House and the Senate and in committees, when the sessions were over, Republicans and Democrats who were civilized members of the House and Senate talked to each other, socialized with each other, got to know each other’s families. That has changed in the last couple of years, and it kind of breaks my heart to see it happen. There is a feeling of almost hatred on the part of some of the new members in Congress. The civility seems to have gone down the drain.

There isn’t the same feeling of pride in being a member of the House and the Senate that members who have been there longer have and have had. And it bothers me because, in my estimation, the Congress of the United States is an institution, is the greatest democratic institution in the whole world. The House of Representatives is called the People’s House. The Senate is what it is to make sure that even the smallest state, where there might be more cattle than people, still have two senators to represent them. Members of the House are elected by population. And this is an institution that anybody who serves in it should be proud to be a part of the Congress of the United States. And what bothers me is, in the last several years, I have seen a kind of disrespect for that institution. I also am upset by so many of the people in our country who tend to be cynical about the Congress of the United States. They don’t distinguish between the institution, which is magnificent, and the men and women who are in it, some of whom don’t belong there because they don’t have the respect for the institution they should have.

And one of the jobs that I have enjoyed most is not only lobbying, walking the halls of Congress, and learning that you wear comfortable shoes because spike heels don’t go very well with the marble floors of the Capitol or the buildings, the Senate and House office buildings, but being able to get out between sessions or during recesses or during vacations to explain to our people, particularly my own union members, why they need to vote intelligently, why they need to register and vote, why when they are immigrants who come here after five years ought to become citizens and have the right to register and vote, because I think they need to take the same kind of pride in the institutions that I have and have learned to revere as institutions over the years that I’ve been down here.

I just wanted to say that, you know, it wasn’t all serious work. I really enjoyed it. We had lots of fun, those of us who lobbied. When you got together with members of both the Democratic and Republican Party, or you worked with the staffs, and you respected the staffs of the members of the House and Senate, because, very often, they could be very helpful to you. They could give you some indication of how their principal felt about certain things, or they could get you to see the member of the House or Senate, because they knew, as I always said, I would need only a few minutes. I always respected the fact that the members were very busy. They had committees. They had constituents to see. And so, as a rule, I would — I said very crassly that I would go in, speak my piece, answer any questions, get the hell out of there, because these were busy people. I didn’t overstay my welcome, unless the member I was talking to or the staff person wanted to continue the conversation. As a result, I think that I got the reputation for not imposing too much on the time of the people who were there to represent their constituents and to, in a sense, legislate for the whole country.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you remember some firsts — for example, the first African American in Congress and the first woman in Congress — and what it meant when there became an increasing number of women and African Americans?

EVELYN DUBROW: I’m trying to remember who the first — oh, Adam Clayton Powell, whom, incidentally, I knew as a little girl, because my sister had gone to school with his first wife, and when Adam came down, elected from Harlem, the seat that Charlie Rangel, who is now ranking member of the Ways and Means Committee, I remember Adam Powell and his being chair of the Labor Committee, or being on the Labor Committee and then becoming chair of it later on, who was very helpful to us, because the garment industry was very big in New York. We were probably the largest union in New York at that time. And I remember when — I don’t remember the first woman, because there were some women when I was there. Mary Norton of New Jersey, who was very concerned with unemployment compensation; Lenora Sullivan out of Missouri; Edna Kelly of Brooklyn, New York — there were a number of women, but not enough of them. And I want to say this: there are still not enough women in Congress. I like to remind the men members that there are more women in this country that vote than there are men. And I’m delighted to see that there is an increase of women every year in both the House and the Senate.

As far as the Afro Americans are concerned, I am simply delighted that so many are beginning to get elected in areas where originally they were ghettoized because — particularly in the South of this country. And it amuses me and makes me a little annoyed when I see members of — male members, white members of those areas, trying now to deprive the Afro Americans from being in Congress by trying to destroy their districts and make them more Anglo rather than Afro American. And I think that people like Cynthia McKinney of Georgia and Eva Clayton of North Carolina and some of the other women, Corrine Brown of Florida, people like that, who are just wonderful, they’re very concerned. You’ve got people like Loretta Sanchez, who defeated one of the worst members of Congress I can ever remember, Robert Dornan, who is still trying to declare that the election was illegal. People like that — Hispanic women, black women — have really made a difference in Congress. And Nydia Velázquez, who is a real leader of the Hispanic group in Congress. So, I really think that as time goes on, the women of all races — white, Afro American, Hispanic, people who are Muslims or whatever their religion happens to be — are going to make Congress a better institution, despite the fact that I’m very upset with what I consider the atmosphere in this present session and the former present session — session of Congress. I think that in the Senate, we’re beginning to see more women come in. Carol Moseley Braun, of course, was the first Afro American, and the only one, senator right now, but I’m sure hoping that we’ll get some more.

I think that women are beginning to recognize that they have to have a special interest in the institution that makes the laws in this country. We’ve been fighting for pay equity for a very long time. When Title VII was amended in the House to include sex, it was introduced by an anti-feminine member of Congress, Howard K. Smith, who was chair of the Rules Committee, who thought if he offered an amendment that would include equal rights for race, color, creed, religion, would also include women, that that would weaken the whole civil rights legislation. Instead, a very smart member of the Judiciary Committee who came from New York beat Mr. Smith’s efforts, and Title VII included sex. And that now has been used as a base to demand equality.

AMY GOODMAN: Evy Dubrow, I want to thank you very much for joining us and your long years of activism and lobbying on behalf of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. Evy Dubrow, thanks for being here.

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