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October 1994, Vol. 117, No. 10
David Dubinsky: a life with social significance
In his history of the United States, entitled America, George Brown Tindall noted a new sense of "commitment and affirmation" abroad in the land during the years of the Great Depression. According to Tindall, this spirit found expression in a most unusual 1937 Broadway musical inspired by the president of the Intentional Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, David Dubinsky. "The surprisingly popular musical show, Pins and Needles, put on by members of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, caught the new feeling of dedication in one of its numbers, 'Sing Me a Song With Social Significance."'
The lyrics of the song, written by Harold Rome, a lawyer turned tunesmith, sounded the mood of a movement on the march:
"Sing me a song with social significance,
All other tunes are taboo.
I want a ditty with heat in it,
Appealing with feeling and meat in it.
Sing me of wars and sing me of breadlines,
Tell me of front page news.
Sing me of strikes and last minute headlines,
Dress your observation in syncopation."
This song of social significance was, of course, not written by Dubinsky. Yet it was his, the child of a man for whom the presidency of a union was a means to live a life of social significance.
Coming to power in the '30's
In 1932, David Dubinsky was elected President of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union. The union was in dire straight. Its energies had been drained in an exhausting internal war between Communists and non-Communists; its treasury had been emptied; it was over its head in debt; the Great Depression piled woes on woes. In his first days in office, Dubinsky defined his mission: "I felt it was my job," he said, "to give the international a decent burial."
Later that year, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected President of the United States. Dubinsky liked to quip that, while both men were elected president in the same year, Dubinsky was elected before President Roosevelt. With the coming of the New Deal, however, the man who had seen himself as fated to bury the International now saw himself as the person destined to resurrect it.
Under the wings of the Blue Eagle, symbol of the National Recovery Act, the union leaped back to life. Members and money came pouring in. The newly elected President of the Garment Workers Union found himself confronted with an embarrassment of riches. What was the union to do with all these newfound members and with all that money in the treasury?
This excerpt is from an article published in the October 1994 issue of the Monthly Labor Review. The full text of the article is available in Adobe Acrobat's Portable Document Format (PDF). See How to view a PDF file for more information.
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