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“Do Buy”

The union label originated among San Francisco cigarmakers in 1875, initially as part of their struggle against unfair competition from Chinese workers and later against sweated and prison labor.

Under the Knights of Labor during the 1880s labeling spread to other trades including boots and shoes, stoves, watches, apparel, etc. According to a Rochester Knight, the KOL Coopers’ label was “so effective that employers insisted their workers join the Knights ‘as they cannot make sale of barrels without the stamp, or label’.” (Sources, Weir, 1996). Some of these labels appeared on goods produced by cooperative factories owned and run by members of Knights’ locals and so were tinged with notions of solidarity based in a cooperative movement, part of whose intent was to link production and consumption in an expanding network that would compete with and eventually undermine capitalism.

Coopers Union label
Coopers International Union label, Labor Journal, December 26, 1913

The AFL had a more pragmatic view of the union label. Their Union Trades and Label Department, chartered in 1909, sought “to promote a greater demand for products bearing the Union Label, and of labor performed by union workers, to advertise union label products, and to educate the members of Trade Unions, their families and the general public upon the economic, social and moral uplift furthered by the Trade Union movement.”

By the following year Rochester’s Central Trades & Labor Council (CTLC) had formed a label department and had revised its constitution to stipulate that “hereafter no delegate, who has not at least four different union labels on his clothing will be given a seat in council. This order will hereafter be rigidly enforced.” (Consternation arose when the rule was first applied to women delegates and they were seated without being examined, pending a special protocol.) In 1923 the delegates decided it was preferable to identify their union labels on “remembrance” (attendance) cards, which were turned over to the trustees. The practice of requiring Council delegates to wear four labels persisted at least until 1932 and on several occasions delegates without labels were turned away.

One of the CTLC’s most effective means of promoting the union label was its “Do Buy” list. As early as 1912 the CTLC used its official Labor Journal to publish a “Friendly List” of places where union goods and services were available and from time to time the paper reproduced facsimiles of union labels.

Page of Union labels
Union label promotion, Labor Journal, December 26, 1913

The official paper also published an extensive list, compiled by the council’s Union Label Department, of those Rochester affiliates with labels: “badge and banner makers; suspender makers; neckwear makers; piano and organ workers; hat makers; glove workers; tobacco workers; cigar makers; cloth cap makers; stove mounters; textile workers, labels on hosiery and underwear; metal polishers, buffers, platers and brass workers, badges, brass goods, buttons and novelties; leather workers, label on travelers goods and leather novelties; machinists label; boot and shoe workers; iron molders; broom makers; united garment workers and journeymen tailors; international typographical union; bakers and confectioners; coopers; united brewery workers.” Also listed were the store and shop cards of meat cutters, barbers, retail clerks and the service buttons of bartenders, waiters, and truck drivers.

Barbers Union shop card
Union shop card: Journeymen Barbers, Hairdressers and Cosmetologists International Union of America.

In 1917 forty unions were reported to have cards or labels displayed in Rochester and affiliates discussed exhibiting all their labels during the Labor Day Parade, in which two contingents of the Women’s Union Label League marched.

The CTLC’s Union Trade and Label League tried to enlist the participation and support of all Council affiliates, especially those unions which had cards and labels, and asked each local to send representatives to League meetings. Poor attendance was a common complaint but one meeting was notable when a union sent three delegates, only one of whom had even “one union label on a piece of wearing apparel.”

Rochester’s labor papers continued to regularly publish lists of concerns from which union goods and services could be obtained including, for example “union bakeries, meat markets, carpenter contractors, printing offices, milk and dairy, commercial photo engraving, electrical contractors, mills, cigar factories, floor laying companies, store fixtures and furniture, sausage manufacturers, glaziers, custom made clothes,” etc. On at least one occasion the paper invited readers to submit the names of businesses they thought should be added to these lists. Occasionally, as in 1922, the CTLC would publish and distribute “to every union home” directories of merchants who sold union goods.

Until 1932 a Rochester Union Label Store at 33 Reynolds Arcade sold “High Quality Gents’ Furnishings — Shirts, Work Pants, Coats, Overalls, etc. Each garment bears the ‘Union Label,’ which is a Guarantee of Perfect Workmanship.” This store was quite unlike many of its competitors, “retailers who handle Union Label goods but keep them out of sight and on the back shelves in their stores and never show them to customers, or indicate to customers that they have them on hand unless the customers demand that they be shown.”

Local union label efforts were spurred and focused by several national AFL campaigns in the 1920s. In 1925 the AFL’s Union Label Trades Department (ULTD) launched an ambitious campaign to promote the union label and labor solidarity, commissioning and distributing a film, Labor’s Reward, to carry its message throughout the land.

During the months leading up to the appearance of Labor’s Reward, the Labor Herald printed a series of front-page editorials promoting the union label, including one that urged workers to “Set aside a certain appropriation to spend for goods bearing the Union Label. Then add a few dollars.”

During the Depression years, union label efforts focused on employment. As John Manning, head of the national ULTD noted, “All money spent by trades unionists for non-union products and non-union services gives financial profit to unfair employers, weakens the labor movement, destroys the opportunity for employment of members of organized labor and discourages fair employers.” In 1930, in an effort to save local jobs, the CTLC joined retailers in attacking Chain Stores.

By 1934 the AFL’s Union Label Trades Department was planning a militant national campaign not only “to increase use of the union label and create a larger market for American products manufactured under conditions fair to labor,” but to “maintain the prestige of the union label as against the NRA’s Blue Eagle label.” The ULTD had problems with the Blue Eagle, which was intended to denote compliance with National Recovery Act codes: many people thought it was a substitute for the Union Label, a “false idea fostered by certain anti-union employers.” Many industries were using the Blue Eagle and ignoring collective bargaining agreements; others complied with minimum wage and maximum hour provisions but didn’t pay their workers well. Moreover, the Blue Eagle was also being placed on prison-made and imported products, some made by child labor.

World War II disrupted the CTLC Union Label Department. In 1950 the Council supported a “label hunt” organized by the NYS ULTD. The following year, CTLC undertook to have all its 100 locals launch their own union label campaigns. In 1952 the State ULTD held its jubilee convention in Rochester. In 1953 the CTLC created a women’s ULTD auxiliary, “since women do about 80% of the buying.” In 1958 the new CTLC Union Label committee received its charter from the national Union Label & Service Trades Department and in 1960 Rochester’s former CIO Union Label Committee merged with the local unit of the Union Label and Service Trades Department (ULSTD).

Garment Union label
United Garment Workers Union label

The Rochester ULSTD worked with the Monroe Theater in 1961 to offer reduced-price tickets during a “Union Label Week” showing of the new union-made film Spartacus. “Union Label Week” became somewhat institutionalized as year after year, beginning in 1961, Rochester’s mayor would proclaim the week of Labor Day as “Union Label Week.”

In 1962, Rochester was approved by the New York State ULSTD as the host city for their statewide convention. The entire Rochester AFL-CIO Executive Board was designated a special committee to plan the spring event. Mayor Gillette designated May 4-9 as “Labor-Management Progress Week” to commemorate the 8th annual Empire State Labor-Management Exhibit at the ULSTD convention. While 500 union delegates and guests from around the state attended the convention at the Manger Hotel, 75,000 attended the exhibition at the War Memorial to see and learn about union-made products and services. Rochester’s Mike Mungovan of the Stage Hands Union was recognized as Union Label Man of the Year. The Rochester Labor Council hosted the convention and exhibit again in 1967, 1971, and 1977 to similarly impressive crowds.

The 1970s were a challenging period for Rochester unionists committed to supporting the union label. As foreign made, low-wage imports began to flood the market the ULSTD sought ways to support union made products. The most-recognized effort was the International Ladies Garment Workers Union’s campaign song:

Look for the union label
When you are buying a coat, dress or blouse
Remember somewhere
Our union’s sewing
Our wages going
To feed the kids and run the house

The RLC’s Union Label Committee circulated petitions on behalf of legislation that would stem the influx of cheaply-made imports and encouraged union families to promote union-made goods in their households. The committee collected donations for unionists around the country who were on strike to preserve their jobs. The Union Label Award of Merit was awarded to local unions, employers, or public figures who supported the label cause. Mary Ann Benincasa of the local Retail Clerks union was a vice president with the NYS ULSTD and represented the Council at the Department’s conventions and meetings around the state as they sought to identify ways to promote union-made products and services and reduce the indifference of consumers to the low wages and poor working conditions that made cheap imports possible. For her efforts, Benincasa received the Union Label Award of Merit in 1980.

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