Money  /  Book Excerpt

Who Makes the American Working Class: Women Workers and Culture

Female industrial workers across the country and from diverse racial backgrounds fought to tell their own stories.

Gloria Maldonado and Crystal Lee Jordan detested their work conditions and wanted to do something meaningful with their time and energy in addition to raising children. In the early 1970s, the labor movement offered them opportunities to try, and each woman decided to become active in an industrial union. After several years with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), Maldonado became the education director for Local 66 in New York City. Crystal Lee, on the other hand, joined a union for the first time, signing a membership card with the Textile Workers Union of America (TWUA) in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. Although the women did not work in the same factories or attend the same rallies, their jobs and unions were interconnected parts of a textile and garment industry that served as an engine for US global ambitions during the twentieth century.

On a chilly day in March 1971, Maldonado walked into the High School of Fashion Industries through one of its four metal doors, each capped with an art deco mural. She was at the respected public school in midtown Manhattan to teach an ILGWU industrial sewing class. Founded in 1926 with classes for dressmaking and garment cutting, it was the Central Needle Trades High School until the 1956 New York City Board of Education changed the name to reflect the school’s expanded curriculum related to design and the fashion industry. As a union educator, Maldonado was carrying on a tradition of Puerto Rican women helping other women workers improve their skills and demand better pay.

Maldonado had caught the attention of several New York labor leaders because she was a vocal member determined to question both company management and men in union leadership. In 1970, these labor leaders offered Maldonado a full-time job as an organizer for Local 66, and she added the title of education director a year later. At the High School of Fashion Industries, the Local 66 manager and a photographer from the ILGWU newspaper Justice joined her to get photos to promote the union’s educational programs. She walked the close rows of sewing machines to assist the women of color most likely attending for bilingual instruction.