Standing at 2227 Payne Avenue just east of downtown Cleveland is a building whose exterior is unlike any other in the city. Its two-story façade is deeply concave and dominated by five vertical panels of block glass windows beneath high-relief, Art Deco-style letters, perhaps ten feet high, reading “In Union There Is Strength”. In 1949, when the building was completed and the labor movement in America was approaching its postwar zenith, probably most people would have recognized the words as a rallying cry to join and support labor unions. Today, after decades of decline suffered by organized labor, probably most passersby are merely puzzled by these words.
In fact, the union which built this impressive headquarters, designed by local architect Milo Holdstein, was the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, once a pillar of the local and national labor movements. It was named the Sidney Hillman Memorial Building in honor of the founder and long-time president of the union, who had died in 1946 at the age of 59. However, the “Amalgamated,” or ACWA, which organized workers in the men’s clothing industry, began declining in membership and resources soon after this building opened, and, in 1999, fifty years later, the union, a mere shadow of its former self, abandoned the building, which has been, since 2004, the Norma Herr Women’s Center, an emergency shelter for homeless women.
Sidney Hillman and his colleagues founded the Amalgamated in 1914, following a revolt of more socialist-minded locals against the conservative leadership of the United Garment Workers, and by the next year, 1915, the new union was active in Cleveland. Apparently the first years here were difficult ones for the union; it made some headway among the smaller “shops,” or production units, but a Cleveland delegate to the 1918 national convention pleaded that a Bohemian and an Italian organizer be sent to Cleveland to help with the organizing (he claimed that 75% of the workers here were Bohemian).
A 1919 “general,” or industry-wide, strike resulted in a 44-hour work week, increased wages, and union security in many of the Cleveland shops, and a seven-week strike in 1921 against the Douglas Tailoring Co., which had shops in Akron and Canton as well as Cleveland, resulted in the union’s greatest organizing victory during its early years here. A young shop steward from the Douglas Co., Beryl Peppercorn, the son of a Jewish tailor from Austria whose family immigrated to Cleveland around 1900, was to emerge as the head of the local union; Peppercorn was not only the Manager of the Cleveland Joint Board of the Amalgamated from 1922 to 1958, but he was also instrumental in forming the first CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) unions in Cleveland during the 1930s and in fighting Communist domination of these unions during the early 1940s.
Regardless of its successes in the smaller shops, the union’s welfare depended critically on its ability to organize the city’s three largest garment manufacturers, Kaynee, Joseph and Feiss, and Richman Brothers. Interestingly, all three were owned by Jewish entrepreneurs and developed national reputations for their progressive labor policies. Kaynee, which employed around 700 workers at its main plant on Aetna Avenue in the Slavic Village neighborhood, produced mainly boys’ clothing. Its factory contained, remarkably, a day care center, recreation room, dance hall, and movie theater, as well as medical and dental clinics, and an outdoor playground.
Likewise, the Joseph and Feiss Co., which employed some 2,000 workers at its West 53rd Street plant, combined scientific management and progressive welfare policies, resulting in well-lit and well-ventilated work spaces, work chairs and tables redesigned to maximize comfort and minimize injury, plus company-sponsored dances, choruses, athletic clubs, and more; in addition, Joseph and Feiss introduced the five-day, forty-hour work week in 1917, before Henry Ford did so in Detroit. Richman Bros., operating out of a 65,000 sq. ft. factory on East 55th Street, offered its thousands of employees two weeks (later three) of paid annual leave, paid maternity leave, interest-free loans in times of need, and many other benefits.
The union had made concerted efforts to organize both Joseph and Feiss and Richman Brothers since 1926, but it was not until 1934 that they could claim success at Joseph and Feiss. The firing of a worker for union activity resulted in a walkout, picketing by as many as a thousand employees, and finally, after intervention by Hillman, a vote inside the factory on whether the workers preferred the Amalgamated or the pre-existing company union – a vote won overwhelmingly by the ACWA. Later that year, the union called a strike at Kaynee, and after a two-month strike marred by violence and the company’s temporary closing of the factory, the company agreed in January 1935 to a contract providing union recognition, wage increases, and other benefits.
The one firm which the Amalgamated could never organize, despite thirty years of trying, was Richman Brothers. Management of this firm had always tried to achieve a work environment suitable for its big “family” of employees, and toward the end of the union’s efforts, in the early fifties, it complained that “the union plan has been one to crush our business. We think this is wrong…to put this kind of pressure on our family.” Beryl Peppercorn reported to the 1950 convention that Richman Brothers remained unorganized, but he was hopeful the new union label program would lead to falling sales for the firm and an eventual union victory. The union also shifted its organizing efforts to the company’s 64 retail outlets, which employed 800 workers, compared with 2,500 at the East 55th factory, and began picketing around half the stores in 1951.
This picketing prompted an amusing response from the Plain Dealer, whose editors wrote in June 1951 that “the ACWA organizers are by no means stupid. They realize that the Richman Brothers Co. would be a big, fat, juicy plum…The Richman Brothers Co. is not having labor troubles with its employees and never has had troubles with them. The union, its mouth watering for the juicy plum, is simply trying to gobble up a good thing.”
With the defeat of the union efforts at Richman Bros. in the early fifties, the Amalgamated began a process of slow decline not long after the Sidney Hillman Building was opened. New plant technology, changing markets, and much cheaper labor, first in the American South and then overseas, spelled the death knell of the local industry. In 1952 Aetna International bought a large share of Kaynee Co. stock and then sold it to Piedmont Shirt Co. of Greenville, S.C., which closed the Cleveland factory in 1958 (the building no longer stands). In 1969 Richman Brothers merged with F.W. Woolworth, which liquidated the Cleveland firm and closed the massive factory in 1992 (the factory still stands empty after many failed proposals for redevelopment). Finally, in 1995, Joseph and Feiss closed its doors after 150 years in Cleveland, and the main factory building was razed in 2003, though the office building was spared and redeveloped in 2017 as Menlo Park Academy, a charter school.
And as the industry declined locally, so did the union. It first merged with the Textile Workers Union in 1976 to form ACTWU, the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, which then merged with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union in 1995 to form UNITE, the United Needle Trades, Industrial, and Textile Employees, and then, in 2004 merged with the Hotel and Restaurant Employees (HERE) to form UNITE HERE. A dissident group broke from UNITE HERE in 2009 to form Workers United, a union which represented around 150 workers in Brooklyn, Ohio, producing expensive men’s suits under the Hugo Boss label until that facility, too, was closed in 2019.