Evelyn Dubrow: Labor’s Legendary Lobbyist
(This "Look Back" feature first appeared in the March/April 2007 issue of The American Postal Work Magazine.)
For two centuries, the lobbies adjacent to the U.S. House and Senate have attracted all sorts of “interest peddlers,” from the cigar-chomping agents of the mine, railroad, and steel industries to the well-heeled representatives of today’s multi-national corporations. In recent years, their often-notorious relationships with legislators have resulted in public condemnation.
“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.”
For much of the last half-century, however, Evelyn Dubrow, a tiny and plainly-dressed woman stood tall among the giants of the lobbying business, tirelessly advocating for the garment workers she directly represented, and the rest of working America as well.
Dubrow, who died on June 20, 2006, at 95, was affectionately known as “Evy” to several generations of union representatives, legislators, and presidents. The daughter of Belorussian immigrants, she grew up in Passaic, NJ, a factory town just outside of New York City. Her father was a carpenter’s union activist, and an older sister, Mary, was active in the women’s suffrage movement and was once arrested for picketing the White House.
Dubrow studied journalism at New York University , and in 1930 she was elected to the school’s professional journalism society, Stick O’ Type. Her first job after college was as a reporter for the Paterson (NJ) Morning Call, where she became a member of the fledgling newsroom union, the Newspaper Guild. At about this time, she got her start in politics, handing out fliers in Times Square about the Spanish Civil War. She soon became a union organizer for the Congress of Industrial Organizations (the CIO).
“I organized stores, peanut makers, pencil makers, umbrella makers, and spaghetti benders,” Dubrow told the Chicago Tribune in 1980. During a laundry strike in Little Falls, NJ, in 1937, she was tear-gassed.
In an era when it was unusual for a woman to advance, Dubrow rose swiftly through the union ranks to become assistant to the president of the New Jersey CIO. In 1947, she helped form Americans for Democratic Action. News stories describing the liberal advocacy group mentioned co-founders Eleanor Roosevelt, economist John Kenneth Galbraith, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther, and Hubert Humphrey, then mayor of Minneapolis, and a rising civil rights crusader.
Dubrow worked for the ADA until 1956, when International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) president David Dubinsky hired her as the chief congressional advocate for the dressmakers. Her move to Washington in her mid-40s launched an extraordinary career on Capitol Hill.
In 1977, the ILGWU made the 65-year old Dubrow a vice president of the union. She retained her title as vice president and was also named legislative director and special assistant to the president when the union merged with the Amalgamated Clothing Workers to form the United Needleworkers, Industrial and Textile Employees union (UNITE).
On the Hill
When Dubrow arrived in Washington, requiring employers to reward women with equal pay for equal work was barely a blip on the political radar screen, and laws were structured to allow racial and gender discrimination in hiring, housing and health care. There were very few women in powerful positions on Capitol Hill.
“I used to raise hell with the corporate guys,” she said in a 2001 interview with Influence, a lobbying trade publication. She told the publication that she was always trying to get more women into the profession. “It was a moral thing with me. And when they were hired, I’d say, ‘Don’t wear high heels, and don’t get involved with the guys.’”
“You need better feet than brains to lobby,” she told Women’s Wear Daily in 1988. But she also felt that a sense of humor, and a non-threatening manner would help. And she always worked both sides of the political aisle. “In Washington you should never write off anybody,” she said in a 1997 interview with Washingtonian, a monthly magazine. “You’ll be surprised where tomorrow’s allies come from.”
Throughout her tenure, she fought for anti-sweatshop laws, fair trade in the global marketplace, and other causes important to the garment workers she represented, and she is often cited as a pivotal figure in building congressional support for many of the laws in the last half of the 20th Century that improved the lot of working families: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the establishment of Medicare, fair housing laws, and pay equity legislation. At a signing ceremony in 1965 for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, President Lyndon B. Johnson singled out Dubrow, saying she deserved credit for pushing through the legislation. In the 1970s and 1980s, Dubrow lobbied hard for the Family and Medical Leave Act, which President Clinton signed into law in early 1993.
She was known to visit 30 senators in a single day, and often would say that she logged so many miles around Capitol Hill that she wore out two dozen pairs of her Size 4 shoes each year. “Miss Dubrow worked 15-hour days and outlasted almost everyone,” the Washington Post said. “For years, she kept her age a secret even while spreading her secrets to successful lobbying,” which included “my B.A.T.”
As she told Washingtonian, “One, don’t Beg for votes. Second, don’t Assume you know everything. And third, don’t Threaten anyone by saying you’ll work to defeat the guy or gal or anything like that.”
Dubrow enjoyed almost legendary status. House Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-MA) ordered that a chair be made available for the exclusive use of the then-septuagenarian Dubrow. The unprecedented courtesy for the “representative of seamstresses, hemmers and buttonhole girls” (as the Post obituary referred to her) lasted until 1995, when it was revoked by the incoming GOP House Speaker, Newt Gingrich.
Dubrow lamented the loss of the spirit of bipartisanship. “After the 1994 election, I even broke my own cardinal rule of going to visit each new member,” she said in the Washingtonian article. By 1997, she had had enough, telling New York Newsday about “the atmosphere of hate that’s grown here. ...That’s what bothers me most.” At age 86, she retired.
But she continued to serve as the senior, if unofficial, lobbyist for working people everywhere, as well as a mentor for countless other union political activists. As Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D), of textile-rich South Carolina once said: “Evelyn Dubrow is the union label.”