Although a vice president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), he led (1935-36) his union to join the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO; see American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations). When the AFL suspended the CIO unions (1936), Dubinsky resigned from the AFL. He opposed, however, the establishment of the CIO on a permanent independent basis, and in 1938 he also broke with it, thus making the ILGWU independent until 1940 when it reaffiliated with the AFL. In 1936 he was one of the founders of the American Labor party in New York State. When it fell under Communist influence, he resigned and helped organize (1944) the Liberal party. In 1945 he again became a vice president and member of the executive council of the AFL, retaining the position after it merged with the CIO in 1955. His efforts at ousting corrupt union leaders culminated in the antiracket codes adopted by the AFL-CIO in 1957.
See M. D. Danish, The World of David Dubinsky (1957).
Arrested after participating in a bakers' strike, then released on the condition that he leave Łódź, he went to Brest-Litovsk to live with relatives, then returned to Łódź only to be arrested again at another meeting of the bakers union. While en route to exile in Siberia he walked out of the prison camp where the authorities were holding him and, after several months hiding in Chelyabinsk and Białystok, managed to make his way to the United States in 1911 with a ticket sent to him by one of his brothers, who was living in New York City.
Now a member of Local 10 of the ILGWU, Dubinsky joined a group of members who rebelled against the old guard leadership of that union to argue for fairer distribution of job opportunities within the union. Dubinsky was elected to the local's executive board in 1918, became vice-president of it the following year and president in 1921. He was elected to the International's Executive Board as a Vice-President in 1922.
Sigman could not, however, regain control of the New York locals, including Dressmakers' Local 22 and Cloak Finishers Local 9, where the CP leadership and their left wing allies, some anarchists and some Socialists, enjoyed strong support of the membership. Dubinsky, by his own account, thought that Sigman was too rash and appears to have urged him to call a truce after the left wing-led unions led a campaign to reject a proposed agreement that Sigman had negotiated with the industry in 1925, bringing more than 30,000 members to a rally at Yankee Stadium to call for a one-day stoppage on August 10, 1925.
The left wing won control of the New York Joint Board, the body that coordinated the activities of all of the New York City ILGWU locals in all aspects of the industry, that year. When it called a general strike on July 1, 1926 Dubinsky was given a nominal role in the strike, reflecting his power base in the cutters' union, but was largely sidelined. That strike was a disastrous failure, leading to the rout of left leadership from the Joint Board and ultimately from the industry, other than the independent International Fur Workers Union.
When Morris Hillquit, the union's long-time counsel, advanced a proposal to create a new position of Executive Vice-President, which Schlesinger would hold, giving up his position as General Manager of the Forward, Sigman agreed. Five months later, after the union's Executive Board rejected an attempt by Sigman to merge two unions, Sigman resigned and Schlesinger returned to office.
By that point, however, the union was in a shambles, still struggling with the huge debts acquired during the failed strike, fighting expelled local leaders, some of whom had taken their unions out of the ILG, and facing an even more disorganized and piratical industry. Dubinsky set out to rebuild the ILGWU's base in New York City by striking a deal with the major manufacturers' group in 1929 that provided no pay raises but made it possible for the union to police the contract by cracking down on subcontractors who "chiseled", cheating workers out of pay or hours in order to gain a competitive advantage. The CPUSA opposed the new agreement but was by that time too weak to muster any effective resistance to Dubinsky.
Dubinsky was elected Secretary-Treasurer of the ILGWU at the end of 1929. He was elected President after Schlesinger died in 1932, retaining the position of Secretary-Treasurer in order to avoid the sort of internecine battles that previous officers had waged in the past. He held the Presidency until 1966, while remaining Secretary-Treasurer until 1959.
Dubinsky proved to be far more durable than his predecessors. He did not brook dissent within the union and insisted that every employee of the International first submit an undated letter of resignation, to be used should Dubinsky choose to fire him later. He also acquired the power to appoint key officers throughout the union. As he explained his position at one of the union's conventions: "We have a democratic union – but they know who's boss."
Under his leadership the union, more than three fourths of whose members were women, continued to be led almost exclusively by men. Rose Pesotta, a longtime ILGWU activist and organizer, complained to Dubinsky that she had the same uncomfortable feeling of being the token woman on the ILGWU's executive board that Dubinsky had complained about when he was the only Jew on the AFL's board. The union did not, however, make any significant efforts to bring women into leadership positions during Dubinsky's tenure.
The union recovered, however, after the election of the Roosevelt and the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act, which promised to protect workers' right to organize. As in the case in other industries with a history of organizing, that promise alone was enough to bring thousands of workers who had never been union members in the past to the union; when the union called a strike of dressmakers in New York on August 16, 1933 more than 70,000 workers joined in it – twice the number that the union had hoped for. It did not hurt, moreover, that the local leader of the NRA was quoted as saying – without any basis in fact – that President Roosevelt had authorized the strike. The union rebounded to more than 200,000 members by 1934, increasing to roughly 300,000 by the end of the Depression.
As one of the few industrial unions within the AFL, the ILGWU was eager to advance the cause of organizing employees in the steel, automobile and other mass production industries that employed millions of workers, many of them immigrants or children of immigrants, at low wages. The ILGWU was one of the original members of the Committee for Industrial Organization, the group that John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers formed within the AFL in 1935 to organize industrial workers, and provided key financial support and assistance; Rose Pesotta played a key role in early organizing drives in the rubber and steel industries.
Dubinsky was unwilling, on the other hand, to split the AFL into two competing federations and did not follow Lewis and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers when they formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations as a rival to, rather than a part of, the AFL. Dubinsky also had personality differences with Lewis, whom he resented as high-handed.
In addition, Dubinsky was alarmed by the presence of Communist Party members on the payroll of the CIO and the fledgling unions it had sponsored. Dubinsky was opposed to any form of collaboration with communists and had offered financial support to Homer Martin, the controversial president of the United Auto Workers, who was being advised by Jay Lovestone, a former leader of the Communist Party turned anti-communist. Lewis, by contrast, was unconcerned with the number of communists working for the CIO; as he told Dubinsky, when asked about the communists on the staff of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, "Who gets the bird? The hunter or the dog?"
The ILGWU began reducing its support for the CIO and, after a few years in which it attempted to be allies with both sides, reaffiliated with the AFL in 1940. Dubinsky regained his former positions as a vice president and member of the executive council of the AFL in 1945. He was the most visible supporter within the AFL of demands to clean house by ousting corrupt union leaders; the AFL-CIO ultimately adopted many of his demands when it established codes of conduct for its affiliates in 1957.
The new party was subject to many of the same fissures that divided the left in the late 1930s. For a while after the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, CPUSA members within the ALP condemned FDR as a warmonger because of his support for Britain. At one particularly stormy meeting Dubinsky and the other leaders were only able to hold their vote endorsing Roosevelt after moving from room to room and calling the police to arrest those who had disrupted the meeting.
Dubinsky ultimately left the Labor Party in 1944 after a dispute with Hillman over whether labor leaders in New York, such as Mike Quill, who either were members of the Communist Party or were seen as sympathetic to it, should be given any role in the ALP. When Hillman prevailed, Dubinsky and his allies left to form the Liberal Party of New York. The ALP went on to endorse Henry Wallace in the 1948 presidential election, while the ILGWU campaigned energetically for Harry S. Truman, nearly bringing New York State into his column.
Dubinsky had hopes of launching a national liberal party, headed by Wendell Willkie, the Republican candidate for President in 1940 who had soured on the Republican Party after his defeat in the primaries in 1944. He proposed that Willkie begin by running for Mayor of New York City in 1945; Willkie, however, died before the plan could get off the ground.
Dubinsky and the ILGWU played an active role in the Liberal Party for most of the 1950s and up until his retirement in 1966. The ILGWU ended its support for the party after Dubinsky left office.
Policing the industry became much harder, however, as gangsters invaded the garment district. Both the employers and the union had hired gangsters during the strikes of the 1920s. Some of them, such as Lepke Buchalter remained in the industry as labor racketeers who took over unions for the opportunities for raking off dues and extorting payoffs from employers with the threat of strikes. Some also became garment manufacturers themselves, driving away unions, other than those they controlled, by violence. While Dubinsky himself remained untouched by graft, a number of officers within the union were corrupted.
The industry changed greatly in the years after World War II; while it had once been concentrated in New York City and other eastern and Midwestern cities, with smaller outposts on the West Coast, the work done by formerly unionized shops fled to other parts of the US or abroad, where unions were nonexistent and wages far lower. The ILGWU was unable to prevent these runaway shops or to organize workers at the new locations.
The union's membership also changed greatly in the years after World War II; what once had been a predominantly Jewish and Italian workforce became largely Latino, African-American and Asian. The leadership of the union had less and less in common with its membership and very often had no experience in the trade itself.
In the last decade of Dubinsky's tenure some of these new members began to rebel, protesting their exclusion from positions of power within the union. That rebellion failed: the established leadership had too strong a hold on the official structure of the union, in an industry in which members were scattered across a number of small shops and in which power was concentrated in the upper echelons of the union, rather than in the locals. Without the support of a mass movement that would have given the majority an effective voice, individual insurgents were either marginalized or coopted.
The union entered a long decline after World War II. Dubinsky's focus on maintaining the stability of the industry and the union's place in it dampened the union's desire to gain significant wage increases for its members. The union gradually lost its ability to keep sweatshop conditions from returning, even in the former center of its strength in New York. While the union had 450,000 members in the years immediately after Dubinsky's retirement, the forces that brought about the decline and eventual disappearance of the ILGWU thirty years later, when it merged with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union to form the union known as UNITE, were already at work.