Slaves to Fashion: Poverty and Abuse in the New Sweatshops; Immigrants, Unions, and the U.S. Labor Market

Robert J.S. Ross, Slaves to Fashion: Poverty and Abuse in the New Sweatshops (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004) and Immanuel Ness, Immigrants, Unions, and the U.S. Labor Market (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005).

Samuel Gompers, the English immigrant cigar-maker of Dutch-Jewish parentage, who helped found the American Federation of Labor in 1886 and led it for the next four decades, was no friend of immigrant workers. Having made it to these shores himself, Gompers was quite preoccupied with pulling up the gangplank behind him. How, he once despaired, can we ever hope to…

“prevent the Chinese, the Negritos, and the Malays from coming to our country? How can we prevent the Chinese coolies…from swarm[ing] into the United States and engulf[ing] our people and our civilization?….Can we hope to close the flood-gates of immigration from the hordes of semi-savage races?…”

One hundred years and five labor federation presidents later, American unions have more enlightened views on immigration. As Robert Ross, from Clark University, and Immanual Ness, from City University of New York, both reveal in their respective books, a battered labor movement has been constrained to join forces with immigrant workers and make their struggles for workplace justice a centerpiece of union revival efforts.

In Ross’s comprehensive survey of garment industry employment here and abroad, we see many encouraging signs that nativism—in official union circles—has been replaced by a nascent labor internationalism. Unable (like governments themselves) to impede the cross-border flow of cheap, unskilled labor, US unions have finally embraced legalization of undocumented workers. They’re also urging Congress to repeal penalties against firms which hire them. Once favored by the AFL-CIO, but rarely imposed, these “employer sanctions” now have the effect of depriving such workers of the legal standing necessary to fight dismissals for union activity.

Meanwhile, capitalism in the new millennium has linked the fate of factory workers from the global North and South (and within the latter) in such a way that effective campaigns against sweatshop conditions can’t be restricted to any one nation. As Ross points out, not only does “competition among communities of workers in developing countries threaten to erode or hold back advancing labor standards and purchasing power,” but the really ferocious competition in textile and apparel manufacturing—now and in the future—will be among developing nations themselves.  The “great sucking sound” of jobs leaving the country—so dreaded by foes of NAFTA—can now be heard in Mexico as well. Thanks to recent trade deals facilitating capital flight to China, runaway plants are on the run again to a land where labor costs are even lower than in the Maquiladora zone and, better yet, privately owned factories are completely union-free.

Back in the US, as Ross notes, some still attribute the persistence of sweatshops to the growth of immigration itself. In the 1990s, 9.1 million new residents entered the country and headed for “the global cities of our new economy,” Los Angeles, New York, Miami, and Dallas. Slaves To Fashion rebuts the notion that immigration restrictions are the policy solution. In apparel manufacturing, “the political and regulatory protections attained in the first half of the century” have been eroded, leaving a “large pool of disempowered workers with few legal rights” at the mercy of “unscrupulous and desperate entrepreneurs.” According to Ross, “the pressures that generate low wages and substandard health and safety conditions are rooted in the neo-liberal trade regime and capital mobility of the current global capitalist era.”

Immanual Ness likewise challenges the view of labor economists like Vernon Briggs, who depict illegal immigrants as too passive and frightened to fight for workplace improvements.  Immigrants, Unions, and the U.S. Labor Market suggests, to the contrary, that foreign-born workers are more apt to organize than the native-born. At least in New York City, the focus of Ness’s study, the former have a “strategic advantage” because they typically work in labor markets shaped by employer and worker social networks. “Clustered together in the same labor niches and employment ghettos, with limited connections to mainstream US society, immigrants can build camaraderie and class consciousness”—a helpful basis for workplace solidarity and collective action. Low-wage workers born in the US, meanwhile, are more apt to protest unfair treatment or bad conditions individually—by quitting and finding a new job, an option less available to many undocumented workers.

To support his thesis, Ness relies on fascinating and inspiring case studies of the little-known labor activism of Mexicans, West Africans, and South Asians in Manhattan. The Big Apple has been the scene of recent organizing among its greengrocery employees, “black car” drivers, and supermarket baggers and delivery-men—all of whom formed their own groups and then got involved, for better or worse, with established unions. The cast of local union characters runs the gamut from extremely helpful organizers from the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) and Machinists (IAM) to several disgraceful betrayers of immigrant workers, from the longshore and retail sectors of organized labor.

New York’s 12,000 greengrocery clerks and deli workers come primarily from Mexico, but many are native Mayan speakers not even fluent in Spanish. Their 1,000 or more store-owning bosses are immigrants too, usually Korean. Strikes, picketing, and boycotts organized by the Asociación Mexicana Americana de Trabajadores (AMAT) began targeting widespread minimum wage and overtime law violations five years ago. As a result, several hundred owners finally agreed to a code of better conduct and a monitoring scheme developed by the state’s attorney general.

At the same time, in larger food stores, French-speaking West Africans from Mali and Senegal were rebelling against their phony “independent contractor” status as baggers and deliverymen hired by middle-men instead of the retailer. They too staged work stoppages and made some gains—in the form of belated and still inadequate representation by the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union.

The 1,000 recently-unionized “private car” company employees provide the book’s most impressive success story, since they now have their own “rank-and-file led local” (affiliated with IAM District 15).  Hailing from Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, these “black-car” owner-operators “worked long hours for many years to pay off their late model luxury car loans, send money back home, and survive in the city.” Saddled with auto insurance and maintenance costs, most could never quite escape what the author describes as “virtual indentured servitude.” Nevertheless, since winning union recognition at several limo services, they’ve been able to negotiate contracts providing individual health coverage and other financial relief

While Ness emphasizes immigrant worker “self-organization” and on-the-job activity—often undertaken in the absence of reliable allies—Ross chronicles the growth of campus-based anti-sweatshop groups as a key union auxiliary in higher-profile, national campaigns. Formed in 1999, United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) has used ‘60s-style protests—including occupying buildings—to pressure colleges and universities into putting their logos only on “sweat-free” caps and clothing. A founding member of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Ross applauds this contemporary activism and its more pragmatic goals but does identify one downside. Many USASers “emphasize the plight of sweatshop workers in other countries” but overlook those in the US who number more than 250,000, earn about 55% of the average manufacturing wage, and “are rarely visible in their campaigns.”  It is, Ross explains, “more chic to advocate for people in the Third World,” although some of the most effective labor support work by students¾at Harvard, Wesleyan, and elsewhere¾has involved campus workers, immigrant and native-born.

Slaves To Fashion also faults USAS sponsor, UNITE, for its own seeming abandonment of “new organizing in clothing shops.” Between 1998 and 2001, the union sank to about 215,000 members, losing a quarter of its dues-payers. (It has recently merged with the similarly-sized Hotel and Restaurant Employees.) Launched in 2002, UNITE’s Global Justice for Garment Workers campaign tried to get more retailers to increase production in unionized US shops. But, as Ross reports, “employment was still plummeting” in New York and UNITE “was frozen out of the clothing industry in LA. So it decided to move on.” Ness describes the union’s new strategic focus and modus operandi as follows:

Failing to organize garment workers, UNITE has redeployed its scarce resources into organizing industrial laundries and distribution centers, bringing in some 40,000 new members who have proved pivotal to the union’s survival. Under the leadership of Bruce Raynor, the national union has endeavored to control organizing at all levels of the union. Organizing drives carried out by independent local unions that did not fit the national’s industry-based, top-down mission were vigorously discouraged, even though some locals had energetically engaged in dynamic campaigns.

Based on his research and personal experience in the greengrocers campaign, the author of Immigrants, Unions and The U.S. Labor Market favors a more flexible, ecumenical, and worker-led approach to union-building, particularly in the “informal sector.”  Ness acknowledges the difficulty that unions face—amidst all their other problems—marshaling the resources necessary “to organize workers employed in small businesses, which now employ two-thirds of the national labor force.” Organizing shop by shop, in “appropriate units,” as defined by the National Labor Relations Board, “is a monumentally difficult task.” Ness makes a convincing case for a different kind of organizing, based on worker mobilization and direct action in the tradition of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Such campaigns “may not start or end with a union contract” and shouldn’t be “measured solely by membership gains or greater union density,” he argues.  If the only immediate result is the development of new workplace leaders, improvements in working conditions, and greater dignity and respect on the job, that constitutes “success” as well.

Both Ness’s book and Slaves to Fashion are thus quite relevant to current debates about AFL-CIO strategy and structure in the US. They demonstrate the continuing importance of having labor-oriented academics address the shortcomings of trade union practice from a critical but sympathetic perspective—and one that defends the idea of unions as organizations run by and for workers themselves.

Reviewed by Steve Early
Organizer, Communications Workers of America
Lsupport@aol.com

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