John Oliver plays ‘Look for the Union Label’, a jingle with Jewish roots

If you watched television in the 1970s and early 1980s, you can probably sing a few bars of “Look for the Union Label,” a jingle sung in commercials for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union. The infectious song was meant to shore up what was then the decaying American-made apparel industry, and the ads featured actual union members singing praises of union-made garments.

The song was more memorable than effective: unions never recovered from a series of trends that shifted the power of organized labor to management, as John Oliver explained on the Sunday night episode of his show “Last Week Tonight” on HBO. Oliver began his segment on fighting unions with a clip of “Look for the Union Label,” an early version showing a multicultural cast of women singing the iconic lyrics:

Look for the union tag, when you are shopping for that coat, dress or blouse, remember somewhere, our union sewing, our salary is going to feed the kids and run the house, We work hard, but who’s complaining? Thanks to ILG we made our way, so always look for the union label, it says we can make it in the USA!

The song always seemed vaguely Jewish to me, especially that line, “but who’s complaining?” – which sounds like it’s directly translated from Yiddish. Turns out he was right, up to a point. While the ILGWU’s Yiddish union roots are undeniable, and the song’s lyricist was a pioneering Jewish advertising executive, the jingle also has a backstory that touches on gender, feminism, and the civil rights movement.

The song was debated in 2019 at an exhibition at the New York Historical Society, “Women’s Clothing, Women’s Work, Women’s Activism.” ILGWU, founded in 1909 to organize workers who make women’s clothing, was instrumental in organizing immigrant women, particularly Jewish women, who worked in the “rag trade.” David Dubinsky, a Russian-born Jew who came to New York as a teenager, was its president from 1932 to 1966.

Four versions of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers advertisement aired on television in the 1970s and 1980s. (Credit: SPIDERSTOCK VIA GETTY IMAGES, YOUTUBE)

As the NYHS program explained, the union reached the height of its power in 1959, when it claimed nearly half a million members, mostly in the New York area. But in the 1970s, unionized stores were closing across the United States and work was being shipped to factories abroad.

As Nicholas Juravich, then a postdoctoral fellow at the NYHS Center for Women’s History, explained in an essay, “the new ‘union tag’ campaign was envisioned as a national, industry-wide strategy to generate support for the ILGWU. beyond their traditional strengths. “In 1975, he writes, only 1.7 billion garments left union stores., a decrease of almost 40% in just seven years.

The lyrics were from the director of the advertising campaign, Paula Green. Green was a Jewish woman who moved to New York from California and became one of the first female executives in the advertising industry when she founded what would become Paula Green Advertising. (At the famous agency Doyle Dane Bernbach in 1962, explains Juravich, created the slogan and campaign “We Try Harder” for Avis, which the car rental company still uses). The music was by Malcolm Dodds, a Brooklyn-born African-American vocalist and choral leader who sang in the 1950s doo-wop group The Tunedrops.

The campaign had to avoid a stumbling block from previous “union tag” campaigns, which were often nativist and racist in urging consumers to buy American products rather than foreign products. “They really avoid that kind of presumption of ugly nativism that, certainly in the 1970s and 1980s, was emerging in parts of the labor movement and in popular culture around jobs going abroad,” Juravich, now an assistant professor of history and Labor Studies. at the University of Massachusetts Boston, he said in an interview Tuesday. “The campaign shows the creativity and multiculturalism of the union, putting workers and their faces front and center. Because much of the rhetoric, even in the 1980s, around what happened to the American working class centers on the white worker. But the ILG ads are gloriously chaotic and packed with people from all over the place. “

In other ways as well, the campaign fought against the cliches of unions as unions dominated by men who gobbled up cigars. “I felt particularly close to the women in the union,” Green told The New York Times in 2004. “They are real examples of women’s liberation.”

The song left a cultural mark: Jimmy Carter called it one of his favorites, Al Gore sang it on the campaign trail, and both “Saturday Night Live” and “South Park” lampooned it. Cory Matthews sings the first line in an episode of the 1990s sitcom “Boy Meets World.”

And the song’s Jewish stamp is unmistakable, if not immediately apparent. Juravich cites the work of Daniel Katz, a CUNY labor historian, who argues in his 2011 book “All Together Now” that Yiddish socialism helped create a distinctive working-class culture that spanned diverse ethnicities and nationalities. “This socialist tradition infuses the ILG,” Juravich said.

However, the song did not do much either to sell syndicated products or to bolster the organized workforce.

“It’s a great song. It’s a great story, ”Juravich said. “What’s depressing is that it didn’t inspire the consumer activism that there might be, which required policy-level interventions by the US government. But I think there are some positives to the way he really involved the workers and their story in a very public and deliberate way. “

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