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The International Workers Order’s Fight to Protect All Americans, from 80 Fifth Avenue

For twenty four years, the entire existence of the organization, the International Workers Order (IWO) was headquartered at 80 Fifth Avenue (southeast corner of 14th Street), an elaborately-detailed Renaissance Revival style office building designed in 1908 by Buchman and Fox. This progressive mutual-benefit fraternal organization was a pioneering force in the U.S. labor movement, which was in many ways grounded in the area south of Union Square throughout the twentieth century. The IWO took some incredibly powerful positions for civil rights and strongly opposed discrimination against minority communities including Jews and Asian-Americans. Here’s a look at the IWO and some of its extraordinary accomplishments during its time at 80 Fifth Avenue:

80 Fifth Avenue, 1937. Photo courtesy of MCNY Digital Collections.

The International Workers Order originated within the Jewish Workmen’s Circle, but split off from its parent organization shortly after its founding in 1930. Over the course of its lifetime, the IWO offered a vast array of resources to its members: low-cost health and life insurance, medical and dental clinics, foreign-language newspapers, cultural and educational activities, cemeteries, a summer camp, and so much more. The IWO’s leaders operated under the principle that there would be “No Jim Crow in the IWO,” and at its height, the consortium included 188,000 members from many political, ethnic, and racial backgrounds. For a quarter of a century, the IWO fought relentlessly for civil rights, interracial solidarity, industrial unions, and social security programs that would protect working-class people.

International Workers Order logo, c. 1930-1939. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

The IWO supported fifteen language federations, including the Jewish People’s Fraternal Order, the Italian Garibaldi Society, and the Slovak Workers Society. Accordingly, the IWO’s magazine Fraternal Outlook was multi-lingual, including writing in English, Spanish, Polish, Italian, and other languages. In the 1930s and 1940s, Puerto Rican and other Spanish-speaking members of the IWO developed the organization’s Cervantes Fraternal Society, and African American members of the IWO instituted the Lincoln-Douglass Society. The Lincoln-Douglass Society, notably, offered high quality health insurance to African Americans, who often faced discrimination from private insurance companies. It also lobbied extensively for civil rights.

Advertisement to hear Vito Marcantonio speak. Photo courtesy of NYPL Digital Collections.

Congressman Vito Marcantonio of East Harlem served as the IWO’s vice president and the leader of its Garibaldi Society.  Considered the protégé of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, Marcantonio served as a critical link between the IWO and the federal government. He introduced legislation drafted by the IWO to implement workplace-safety laws and universal health care, and to bar discrimination against Jewish, Italian, and black individuals in war work. Within the IWO, Marcantonio supported civil rights campaigns such as the federal anti-lynching bill, the permanent Fair Employment Practices Committee, the integration of the armed forces, the elimination of Jim Crow segregation in public facilities, and the protection of black voting rights. The IWO’s Jewish People’s Fraternal Order also fought forcefully for the integration of the Army base recreational facilities.

Marcantonio was furthermore a strong opponent of the brutal internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. He received a number of letters of thanks for his efforts, including one from George Yoshioka, a War Relocation Camp Internee who wrote to Marcantonio from a camp in Amache, Colorado: 

I believe that I am expressing the innermost feelings of all the 110,000 evacuees (90% of whom are citizens) in saying that we are greatly heartened and encouraged in the knowledge that you have the vision and courage to look at fundamental issues realistically […] and that you have taken steps to correct an unjust condition that has existed for these many years.

80 Fifth Avenue, 2020.

Additionally, Congressman Marcantonio proposed a bill to remove the ban on Asian naturalization, receiving an acknowledgement of gratitude from the Japanese American Committee for Democracy. Meanwhile, throughout this period, grassroots members of the IWO organized against the internment, and vehemently defended Japanese Americans who were members of the Order.

From its beginning, the IWO was the frequent target of House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) investigations, and in 1954 the organization was disbanded following legal action undertaken by the state of New York. Nevertheless, the legacy of the IWO lives on in countless ways. The organization had a profound influence on the development of many New Deal reforms, especially the Social Security Act and the National Labor Relations Act, and it lay the foundation for the continuing fight to provide and protect human rights for all Americans.

Village Preservation has recently received a series of extraordinary letters from individuals across the world, expressing support for our campaign to landmark a historic district south of Union Square. For more information on the International Workers Order at 80 Fifth Avenue, please read the letter of support from Dr. Robert M. Zecker, Professor of History at Saint Francis Xavier University and the author of “A Road to Peace and Freedom”: The International Workers Order and the Struggle for Economic Justice and Civil Rights, 1930-1954.

To help landmark this and other buildings in this area, click here. To read more history of the buildings and area south of Union Square, click here. For more about our preservation efforts in the area, click here.

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