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Unions, Activists, & the Global Apparel Industry
T he global apparel industry is a vast sweatshop enterprise employing tens of millions of workers in over 100 countries. The workers’ struggle to improve their conditions within this global sweatshop industry has been the inspiration for an exciting and powerful student movement on U.S. college campuses over the past ten years, involving the United Students Against Sweatshops and the Workers Rights Consortium. It has also inspired activists to fight for sweatfree procurement legislation to ensure that cities and states are not purchasing sweatshop-made uniforms and other apparel.
The union’s experience with the U.S. apparel industry goes back over a century. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was becoming common for people to buy clothes instead of making them. A large industry developed, employing hundreds of thousands of workers, primarily in New York City. There were thousands of small manufacturers, contractors, and subcontractors in ferocious competition with each other in an industry dominated by unpredictable fashions trends and seasonal production cycles. The unorganized workers in this industry had to deal with poverty level wages, long working hours, and horrible and unsafe working conditions.
In the early 1900s, workers formed two principal unions to organize and improve their wages and working conditions. The International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILG) was formed in 1900 to organize women’s clothing workers. The Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, often called the “Amalgamated,” formed in 1914 to organize the men’s apparel industry. Their early efforts to organize workers were truly inspiring. They faced tyrannical, anti-union bosses, and there was no social safety net if they were fired or blacklisted. They were beaten by hired thugs and jailed by the police. These workers were mostly Italian and Jewish immigrants who spoke many languages. Some were radicals and socialists who wanted to change the world and reformers who wanted to abolish the sweatshop. But mostly they were workers who just wanted a decent wage and some control over their working lives.
These workers built power by withholding their labor. In 1909 and 1910 the ILG staged two important strikes, the first with over 20,000 workers at women’s shirt contractors (called the Uprising of the Twenty Thousand) and then over 60,000 cloakmakers went on strike a few months later. The resulting contract settlement, called the “Protocols of Peace,” formed the basis for industry-wide standards for garment workers. They set a minimum wage, reduced the work week to 50 hours, established an arbitration system for disputes, abolished homework, and recognized the union as the collective bargaining agent.
Labor’s Gains and Losses
I n 1911 about 500 workers were employed at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City. On March 25, 146 workers died during a fire. The year before Triangle had successfully fought the union. A Triangle worker named Rosy Safron, after the fire, said, “I was in the great shirtwaist strike…our bosses won and we went back to the Triangle Waist Company as an open shop…. If the union had had its way we would have been safe in spite of the fire, for two of the union’s demands were for adequate fire escapes on factory buildings and open doors giving free access from factories to the street. The bosses defeated us and we didn’t get the open doors or the large fire escapes and so our friends are dead.”
Over the next few decades, with more strikes and other activity,
the apparel unions eventually organized a majority of the industry
and steadily improved on the industry contracts—raising wages,
reducing working hours, and gaining employer paid health and pension
benefits. These contracts achieved the most important negotiation
goal for a union—to take labor costs out of competition. No
longer could contractors compete with each other by creating misery
for their workers. They could compete through other means such as
customer service and product quality, but sweatshop labor could
not be the business model. For most U.S. apparel workers, the sweatshop
era was over.
The unions and the employers acknowledged in their contracts that there was an “integrated process of production” among the manufacturers and the contractors and that the workers had a “unity of interest” in maintaining consistent labor standards throughout the industry. In these contracts they established two important principles. One was called “joint liability,” where the manufacturers were held responsible for the wages and working conditions of the contractors they used. The other was the requirement that manufacturers had to use union contractors. These measures were essential for workers to gain some control over an industry with thousands of small companies in a shifting web of contract arrangements.
If U.S. apparel worker unions saw triumph in the first half of the 20th century, they saw defeat and decline in the second half. Apparel factories started to leave the main apparel centers like New York City and move to nearby states like Pennsylvania, then South and West. The union followed the factories and organized the workers as best they could, but when the apparel work left the country and went overseas, there was little the U.S.-based unions could do.
The U.S. apparel industry was one of the first manufacturing industries to experience on a large scale what we now call “globalization.” Apparel manufacturing is very labor intensive and does not require a lot of capital. Thus it was relatively easy for developing countries to establish an apparel industry. The last few decades have been disastrous for U.S. apparel employment. In 1973 the U.S. clothing manufacturing industry reached its high point of employment, with almost 1.5 million workers. Since then, this number has fallen to less than 250,000. Over 90 percent of all apparel bought in the U.S. today is imported from other countries.
As these jobs have been lost in the U.S., the global apparel industry has now become one of the world’s largest manufacturing sectors, employing over 25 million workers in more than 100 countries. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these workers toil in factories with sweatshop working conditions, many of them making clothing for the U.S. market. Their working conditions deteriorate as contractors compete for apparel work by lowering wages and requiring long hours of work. The standard wage in most countries is at a poverty level and about half what is needed to support an apparel worker’s family. Child labor is common, workers have no health care, and the factories can be dangerous places to work. If workers try to organize a union to improve their situation, they are often fired, blacklisted, beaten, and arrested.
The major apparel retailers account for a large amount of the nearly $400 billion U.S. market for apparel and footwear. Their business practices affect millions of workers. An example would be a company like WalMart, the world’s largest seller of apparel, which employs thousands of apparel factories around the world. Wal-Mart may tell a contractor that it needs a large shirt order by the end of the month at 25 cents less per unit. If they can’t get that, they’ll move the work elsewhere. What will that factory do? They will cut the workers wages and make them work 100 hours per week to get the job done.
Yet at current international wage and price levels, the average amount of assembly labor in a garment often accounts for 1 percent or less of the total retail price. Wages could double, and if all the increased costs were passed onto consumers, prices would rise by 1 percent, a trivial amount that few would notice. Consumers have even indicated in surveys that they are willing to pay more for apparel that is made under decent conditions.
Sweatshops have returned to the U.S. as well, both in the traditional apparel center of New York City and in Los Angeles, which is now the largest apparel manufacturing region in the country. It has become extremely difficult to organize apparel manufacturing workers in the U.S. because it is so easy to move the work elsewhere. An example is UNITE’s major campaign in the 1990s to organize thousands of workers at contractors that worked for Guess jeans in Los Angeles. UNITE lost that campaign when the company moved much of the work to Mexico.
O ne of the successes of the anti-sweatshop movement over the last decade is that it forced a change in consciousness over how apparel and retail corporations talk about sweatshops. Ten years ago, the companies would not admit there was a sweatshop problem or, if they did, they refused to take any real responsibility for it. Well, things have changed slightly for the better. The industry now acknowledges some of the obvious sweatshop problems that exist and claims that it is determined to fix them. But how do you fix a problem on which their business model depends? Not surprisingly, they do it with public relations and false solutions. They now have Codes of Conduct and occasional factory monitoring. The anti-sweatshop movement has long called for these codes and monitoring, but only as a means to facilitate genuine worker empowerment, not as the solution. Now there are thousands of consultants, academics, lawyers, accountants, factory monitors, compliance officers, and NGO-staff forming a whole new social responsibility industry, but the conditions in the factories aren’t changing. This industry can point to some improvements, but they are hostile to meaningful reform such as a living wage for workers or for worker unionization. At best, they advocate for kinder, gentler sweatshop exploitation with boss-friendly bromides about “stakeholder engagement.” In reality, the bosses still decide how little the workers should be paid, how much forced overtime they should work, and whether they should be fired for no reason.
Workers and their unions know how to deal with capital within one country—the history of the U.S. apparel unions has demonstrated that clearly. But capital is now international, it can move where it wants to go, with very few restrictions. Meanwhile unions are still structured nationally and generally operate in only one country. In most countries, there are too many restrictions on workers’ ability to organize. Thus it is difficult for workers to unite to confront capital on a global basis. As a result, the cost of labor in various countries is in competition with itself. This has created a situation where employers are able to dictate terms and workers suffer in sweatshops. This is class warfare, but only one side is really fighting.
In a world with global trading, we need to raise workers’ bargaining power globally. Apparel workers and their national unions need to act as one coordinated global union to organize the factories that produce for the same apparel and retail corporations. An example of this is UNITE’s successful campaign in 2004 to organize the New Jersey warehouse for the large Swedish apparel company H&M. In conjunction with this campaign, workers in Thailand successfully organized two apparel shops that were producing for H&M. With more coordination and outreach to other unions, much more organizing could have been accomplished. We also need to change the rules at the WTO, or create a new system, so that labor rights are enforced and minimum labor standards are adopted for the global apparel industry.
A special concern is how we assist workers in China. Because of the phase-out in 2005 of the apparel quotas governed by the Agreement on Textiles and Clothing, with some exceptions there are no longer any limits on how much apparel can be imported into the U.S. from other countries. Thus most of the world’s apparel production is moving to China, a country which may soon produce the majority of the world’s clothing. China is an apparel boss’s dream come true. Labor costs are low, the product quality is good, and independent unions are illegal. But workers in China can fight back and there has been tremendous unrest over the past few years, with tens of thousands of protests, as they see themselves working harder for less.
UNITE HERE has the unique position of being the major apparel industry union located in the U.S., which is both the world’s largest apparel market and the headquarters for many of the major apparel and retail companies. We need to organize with other apparel unions to confront common employers over the sweatshop system they created. We need to impose on a global basis some of the core principals such as Joint Liability and Union Contracting that served the U.S. apparel unions so well last century. With Joint Liability, the major apparel and retail companies that control this industry need to be held directly responsible for the conditions in the contract factories, and they need to change their terms of trade and stop placing orders that create sweatshop conditions. They need to use union contractor shops, which will help unions organize the industry.
The Activists’ Role
W orkers cannot win this global fight alone. Workers need the help of students, professors, anti-sweatshop activists, consumers, and progressive politicians. The impressive work of groups on college campuses like the United Students Against Sweatshops and the Workers Rights Consortium is important. Their current struggle over the labor standards for university licensed apparel is a crucial and potentially groundbreaking one. After almost ten years as a growing student movement, the fight has moved beyond Codes of Conduct and helping workers in a few factories to organize and now seeks to implement real reform in the way college apparel is produced. Apparel brands like Nike and Reebok that produce for the collegiate apparel market will have to pay their contractors enough so that workers can make a living wage. Additionally, they will be required to use factories that have a democratic workers’ union or meaningful neutrality toward union organization.
Similarly, the developing work of SweatFree Communities, a national coalition of anti-sweatshop groups formed in 2003, has sought to bring a similar model to public apparel procurement. Several states such as Maine, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania have sweatfree procurement laws and cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco have passed strong ordinances in the last few years. They are now actively considering the formation of a consortium that will enable better coordination and enforcement of sweatfree purchasing. The collegiate and public sectors of apparel procurement account for several billion dollars per year and, though small compared to the entire industry, can help construct an alternative apparel economy and a positive example that we can fight to extend to the rest of the apparel industry. Working together, workers and activists can fight the global sweatshop and create a new model for global apparel production—one based on worker strength and solidarity, rather than misery and exploitation.
Eric Dirnbach is the Apparel Industry coordinator for UNITE HERE and president of SweatFree Communities. This article is adapted from a talk given at a sweatshop panel discussion at Clark University in November 2006.
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