For over fifty years, David Dubinsky was one of America’s most dynamic and effective labor advocates. Known for his small stature and aggressive negotiating tactics, “D.D.” as he was known, helped change the face of American labor history. His work with some of the nation’s biggest union organizations, including the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), and the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), has led to vast improvements in the lifestyles of American workers.
Dubinsky’s belief that unions could help the lives of working people emerged from his tumultuous childhood in Eastern Europe. Born in 1892, he worked at his father’s bakery in Lodz (then in Russian Poland), where he joined the bakers’ union. Shortly after the Revolution of 1905, he was jailed for his union activities and sent to a labor camp in Siberia. After escaping tsarist persecution, Dubinsky sailed to the United States in 1910, settling with his brothers in New York City.
After accepting a job as a cutter in the garment industry – a semi-skilled position for those who cut the material for ladies dresses – Dubinsky joined the ILGWU. He soon became an active member in the ILGWU, and was named to its Executive Board in 1921. He also met and married Emma Goldman, also a member of the ILGWU. During the 1920s, one of his major tasks was fighting Communist influence in labor unions. His hard work and compassion for the common worker made him one of the rising stars in the labor movement. When the head of the ILGWU died in 1932, Dubinksy replaced him; he would hold the presidency until 1966. It was also in the early 1930s that Dubinksy and the ILGWU became intimately involved in national politics.
He helped support Franklin Delano Roosevelt in each of his campaigns for the Presidency. Dubinsky and the unions benefited greatly from the New Deal, especially the National Industrial Recovery Act and the National Labor Relations Board. The NIRA in particular, through Section 7 (a) guaranteed all workers involved in interstate commerce the right to collective bargaining. As a result, union membership swelled. Dubinsky believed that the union should never “fight for bread alone.” In addition to securing pensions, unemployment insurance, increased minimum wages and a forty hour work week for his constituents, he also provided ILGWU members with cultural and leisure opportunities. In 1936, Dubinsky and Sidney Hillman formed the American Labor Party to provide political direction for the unions. When the American Labor Party came under Communist influence, Dubinksy took his supporters and formed the New York-based Liberal Party.
Dubinsky was also intimately involved with the various disputes among the AFL, the ILGWU, and the CIO (which he helped create in 1935 with John L. Lewis). Dubinsky left the AFL when it banned all unions affiliated with the CIO. He subsequently left the CIO when his relationship with Lewis soured. He maintained the ILGWU as an independent labor organization until 1940, when it went back with the AFL. During the Cold War, Dubinksy worked with labor organizations throughout Europe to fight the same Communist influence that he had resisted in the ILGWU and the American Labor Party. After the AFL and the CIO merged in 1955, Dubinsky was tasked to lead its Committee on Ethical Practices where he fought the influence of racketeering and organized crime which plagued many unions. He retired from the AFL-CIO in 1966. Among his most enduring accomplishments was the establishment of the thirty-five hour workweek. He is also remembered as a moderating influence in the labor movement. He died in 1982 in New York City at the age of 90.