The Little Engine that Could

Every day, I look at the poster of labor activist Rose Schneiderman in my office, and I draw inspiration from the stories of Jewish women who shook up the American labor movement in the early 20th century. So it was with both sadness and interest that I read the obituary of labor lobbyist Evelyn Dubrow last night. As the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union’s chief lobbyist for 40 years, she fought tirelessly for labor rights such as minimum wage, health care, family leave, and pay equity, as well as other social causes such as education and civil rights. Like sister garment worker activist Schneiderman, Dubrow was a tiny powerhouse (just 4 foot 11) – thus earning her the nickname “the little engine that could.”

Lobbyists today have a really bad name (thanks to the likes of Jack Abramoff), but Dubrow offers a different model – someone who refused to become, or work for, “fat cats,” as she put it. Throughout her long career, she remembered that she represented hard-working people and remained one herself, even after she had earned prominence and status.

Why didn’t I know Evelyn Dubrow’s name until now? Activists, historians, and educators make ample use of the stories of Jewish labor activists like Schneiderman and Clara Lemlich Shavelson, but the story seems to stop in the 1940s, and the next generation – women like Dubrow – hasn’t been incorporated into our collective memory yet. A great reminder that there is a lot of Jewish women’s history still to uncover. Let’s get on it!

Topics: Labor Rights, Unions
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Remembering Evy Dubrow

Some 10 years ago, Evy Dubrow, the legendary lobbyist for garment workers, was out with friends in an old whale-watching boat off the coast of Argentina and she decided she wanted to touch one of the whales that came alongside the boat.

Here’s how AFL-CIO President John Sweeney says he heard the rest of the story:
You can picture what happened next—a tiny [4 foot 11 inches] 84-year-old woman dangled overboard, with a friend clinging to her feet for dear life.
Evy’s arms were outstretched, and, of course she touched the whale. Evy shouted, “We did it! How many people get to touch a whale in the wild?”
On that day, the whale learned the lesson that countless senators and representatives learned: Never underestimate Evy Dubrow.
And I think the lesson Evy Dubrow taught us throughout her life was: “Never underestimate what working people can accomplish.”
Sweeney spoke at a memorial service for Dubrow, who lobbied for working people and her union, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), now part of the unaffiliated UNITE HERE, for 46 years. Dubrow died in June at 95. More than 300 people attended the service in the AFL-CIO building in Washington, D.C., today, including dozens of members of Congress.
A parade of speakers delivered loving tributes to the daughter of immigrants from Belarus, who joined the union movement in 1937 organizing textile workers in New Jersey. In 1956, she became the first Washington lobbyist for the ILGWU. For more than four decades, Dubrow was a fixture on Capitol Hill and an indefatigable champion of workers, whether or not they belonged to a union.
Dubrow was involved in nearly every piece of progressive legislation in the past 50 years, including the Family and Medical Leave Act, Civil Rights Act of 1964, equal pay for women and Medicare. She also was a founder of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA). In 1999, President Bill Clinton gave her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, saying:
Evy Dubrow has fought to improve the lives of America’s working women and men. A tenacious and effective union activist, she has been a force for social justice and improved labor conditions by working for increases in the minimum wage, health care reform, family and medical leave, and pay equity for women. Renowned for her grace, candor, and integrity, she has earned the respect of opponents and allies alike.
During today’s memorial service, many of the lawmakers she worked with paid tribute to the woman many said embodied the term “union label.” Here are a few of the comments:
Evy was most furious when someone called the women she represented “unskilled.” She knew they had skills. What they lacked were decent pay and benefits. When I first came to the Senate, (former House Speaker) Tip O’Neill told me even if you didn’t listen to any of the union presidents, listen to Evy Dubrow. She’s always on the right side.
Millions of Americans have better pensions, health care coverage and good wages because of Evy Dubrow.—Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.)
Some people come to Washington and try to game the system to get a special deal for their own gain. But Evy set the gold standard for how the people’s business should be conducted—no games, she stayed there until she won.—Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.)
Evy used to always say that she represented the 350,000 workers and 250,000 retirees [of the ILGWU] who couldn’t trod up to Capitol Hill to meet their representatives. She worked tirelessly not just for those she represented, but for civil rights, Social Security, fairness and opportunity—the operating principles of a just society.—Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.)
The best way to remember Evy Dubrow is to forget the labels and think of the principles of the way we ought to go as a country—about every American having a right to education, health care and being all you can be.—Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.)
At four-foot-11 and size four shoes, she was able to negotiate the corridors of power more accustomed to alligator shoes and the world’s elite. She was not daunted by that. Her physical presence was a constant reminder of the lowest paid and most vulnerable in our society and we miss her.—Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio)
Other speakers included Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), UNITE HERE President Bruce Raynor, Change to Win Chair Anna Burger, UNITE HERE Executive Vice President Edgar Romney,Susan Scanlan, Liz Smith, and Larry Silverton, husband of Dubrow’s niece. Former UNITE HERE President Jay Mazur sent a note praising Dubrow and the UNITE HERE Chorus performed.

by James Parks

Some interesting information on, and a brief video clip of, Evy Dubrow can be found here:

And a weblog article about her life and work is here:

Arieh Lebowitz / Communications Director / Jewish Labor Committee

Just received.

Bruce S. Raynor, General President, UNITE HERE And John J. Sweeney, President, AFL-CIO

Invite you to save this date and plan to join us at a memorial service to honor the life of

Evy Dubrow

Thursday, Sept. 14, 2006 9:30 a.m.

AFL-CIO 815 16th St., N.W. Washington, D.C.

For further details, call the AFL-CIO at 202-637-5000.

How to cite this page

Rosenbaum, Judith. "The Little Engine that Could." 23 June 2006. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 20, 2021) <>.

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