Hidden Impact of Sweatshop Laws

Is your image of a sweatshop a black-and- white photograph of Jewish garment workers marching for labor rights 100 years ago, or the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in 1911, in which hundreds of Jewish workers were trapped inside a burning building in New York (see sidebar)? If so, then you should update it: As of 2003, Los Angeles is leading the nation in sweatshop labor.

A coalition of activists under the title of No More Sweatshops, headed by former state Sen. Tom Hayden, is currently pushing legislation through the Los Angeles City Council, the Los Angeles School Board and the California Legislature to fight the illegal labor practice of sweatshops and to ensure these government bodies do not purchase any items with city or state funds that are produced by sweatshops.

On Sept. 9, the Los Angeles School board will hear advocates testimony on behalf of anti-sweatshop legislation to ensure that no school board funds are used to purchase sweatshop-produced uniforms. Similar hearings with the L.A. City Council and the Legislature are expected to follow in the coming months.

While no one exactly advocates sweatshops, critics of the activists say that legislation might target the only income source of an already vulnerable illegal immigrant community depends on sweatshops for their livelihood and that garment manufacturers would simply move their operations overseas rather than reform. Critics charge that activists should instead work with sweatshops to change their labor practices rather than pass more legislation against them.

Sweatshops in the 1900s were fueled by immigrant labor — much of it Jewish. Today, immigrant labor still fuels sweatshops; only the immigrants are now primarily Latino and Asian. Today’s sweatshops are manufacturing centers in which few if any federal or state labor laws are observed. Laborers often work 16-hour days, seven days a week for far below minimum wage with little or no provisions to ensure their health and safety. Additionally, workers are often subject to physical abuse.

Sweatshops workers are often forced into a type of indentured servitude in order to pay off the people who smuggled them into the United States, often paying off thousands of dollars in debt while making only a few dollars an hour.

"It’s a form of slavery that’s alive and well," said Anat Tamir, program director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, which is a key Jewish player in the No More Sweatshops campaign in Los Angeles. "It’s a chain of production that exploits the most vulnerable people, and everyone from subcontractors to CEOs of large corporations are setting the tone for this kind of abuse and exploitation for the sake of profit. It’s dehumanization at its worst."

The problem of sweatshops in Los Angeles has reached epidemic proportions. Los Angeles has approximately 140,000 garment laborers who are primarily Latino and Asian undocumented workers. According to U.S. Labor Department studies, only about one-third of L.A. garment factories follow federal and state labor laws that are designed to protect workers. Garment production is Los Angeles is currently a multi-billion dollar business.

The cheap labor that sweatshops provide, however, is part of a system that fills a critical role in the clothing-production process. Garment manufacturers do not usually physically produce the clothes they make. The manufacturers take orders from retailers, design the clothing, market the label and then contract with independent garment factories to make the clothing. These subcontracted companies may use sweatshop labor without the manufacturer’s knowledge. All in all, consumers and manufacturers have difficulty ensuring that their clothes are "kosher."

Stan Levy, chair of the Labor and Public Affairs Committee with the California Fashion Association, has been working with manufacturers for 10 years to avoid worker exploitation. Levy pointed to legislation that responsible manufacturers have helped pass in recent years, such as 1999’s Assembly Bill 633, which allows workers who have not been paid by the subcontractors to file for payment on wages they did not receive. (This measure’s effectiveness is somewhat compromised by the fact that illegal immigrants fear deportation.) However, Levy pointed out that even with these safeguards, abuses can still occur.

"You have people with every good intention in the world who are horrified that workers are being exploited and want to help end the abuse of these people, but you are dealing with a problem that includes complicated cultural and economic issues," Levy explained. "Responsible manufacturers are trying to ensure this abuse does not occur, but we need government to offer better supervision and control."

Arthur Lujan, state labor commissioner, was unavailable for comment, but several people with knowledge of the workings of the commissioner’s office said they are not properly staffed or funded to oversee the garment industry.

Levy pointed to two independent monitoring agencies, Cal Safety Compliance Corporation and Apparel Resources, which offer certification that a garment factory is sweatshop free. However, Levy said they are only effective for registered companies.

"There is a whole garment underground," Levy noted. He added that it is unlikely for some subcontractors to stop using sweatshop labor without heavy governmental enforcement.

Richard Appelbaum, co-author of "Behind the Label: Inequality in the Los Angeles Apparel Industry" (University of California Press, 2000) and a professor at UC Santa Barbara, thinks it is possible to balance profits and fair labor in the industry.

"Labor cost is probably 6 percent of the retail price," Appelbaum said. "Even increasing the wages 50 percent would only subtract marginally from the profits. There’s a lot of profit in the industry, and there are significant profit margins. By cutting slightly into those profit margins, manufacturers could ensure a fair environment for workers."

Appelbaum also said he believes that most consumers would be willing to pay slightly more for garments that were not manufactured by sweatshops.

"Just like you pay extra for kosher food or bottled water, people would pay extra to know that their clothes are sweatshop free."

Levy said he thinks Appelbaum’s assessment doesn’t account for the complexities of garment productions.

"There is what it actually costs to make the product and then what it costs to sell that product in the store," Levy said. "Design, sales, production, advertising — all of those must come from the price as well. It may cost $5 to make and $50 in the store, but the actual profit the manufacturer makes is $5."

The quick closure of sweatshops is also too simple a solution in Levy’s eyes.

"No one wants to see abuse, but if you close down these companies completely, you’re going to have a lot of people deported and losing their jobs," Levy said. "You would create a huge crisis in a very vulnerable community, and all the people who are dependent of the workers to support them. And the abuse wouldn’t necessarily stop, it would just move overseas. That’s part of the anguish of this situation — as we try to ensure the fair treatment of workers it becomes a very difficult issue in light of the global economy. We need to work with the companies that are here to ensure fair labor practices."

Although the realities of sweatshops are complex, activists still believe than an idealistic approach is needed to solve this problem.

"Seventy-five years after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire tragedy, the language of immigrant sweatshop workers has changed from Yiddish to Spanish and Chinese," wrote the PJA and No More Sweatshops in a prepared statement. "But our intimate history as Jews rising from the sweatshops of New York and our strong tradition of social justice work demand that we once again fight egregious sweatshop abuses to protect a new generation of exploited low-wage workers."

Sweatshop Days

Rose Freedman has died.

Her death at 107 years of age has been widely noted, for Freedman was the last living survivor of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire, a calamity that claimed 146 lives. Just months ago, she was featured in a PBS documentary, "The Living Century," which told not only of her experience 90 years ago, but also of the remarkable life she led thereafter. That life — as The New York Times put it — was both "colorful and courageous," right up until her last days in her home in Beverly Hills.

But it is her early days that I want to recall: the days we remember sentimentally as the time of the Lower East Side, which was also the time of the sweatshops and of their rapacious owners unconstrained by laws and regulations that would offer some protection for working-class people.

In 1902, the women of the Lower East Side organized a boycott of the kosher butchers of the area. After meat prices per pound had soared from 12 cents to 18 cents, women organized themselves as the Ladies Anti-Beef Trust Association. Their three-week-long boycott was a roaring success, imitated soon after in Cleveland and Detroit, and followed by frequent rent strikes and a 1909 strike that would have major implications for trade unionism in general: 20,000 shirtwaist makers, mostly women between the ages of 16 to 25, participated in what became the largest American strike by women for that time. The 1909 strike turned the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) into a force within the labor movement. Energized by the shirtwaist makers strike, 65,000 men, chiefly from the cloak and suit workers, left their jobs a year later and went on strike, demanding, among other things, a union shop.

The uptown Jews sought to intervene; they were horrified at the spectacle of Jewish workers striking against Jewish employers. Their efforts at mediation were finally successful when Boston lawyer Louis Brandeis negotiated what was called the "Protocol of Peace." Three weeks after the New York strike was settled, workers at Chicago’s Hart, Schaffner & Marx went out on strike. They were soon joined by another 35,000 Chicago workers in the garment trades striking against 50 different manufacturers. Out of that strike was born the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, which later became Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU).

Then came Triangle. Essie Bernstein, age 19; Anna Altman, age 16; Molly Gernstein, age 17; Vincenza Belatta, age 16; and 142 others were killed, almost all immigrants to these shores, with its huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Fewer than 20 were men, and more than half were 21 years old or younger. The doors on the eighth and ninth floors were locked, and once the fire began to spread there was no escape. Many women — girls, really — jumped from the windows to their deaths on the sidewalk below, "their flaming skirts billowing in the air as they fell."

Francis Perkins, who would become the first woman cabinet officer as secretary of labor, was an eyewitness to the fire, and Al Smith, then a member of the New York State legislature, whose district included a number of the dead, spent time with the grieving families at the morgue and in their homes. And while Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, the owners of Triangle, were found "not guilty" by the jury that tried them for manslaughter, the event did trigger modest reforms in regulating worker safety. (Harris and Blanck reopened for business three days after the fire, and offered the families of the deceased a week’s wages. Later, in a civil suit, they were ordered to pay $75 to each of the families of the victims.)

We remember Triangle these days as part of our nostalgic baggage. It is doubtful that many of us made the connection to Triangle when 25 workers died — again, mostly women — in a fire at the Imperial Food Products Poultry Plant in North Carolina due to a locked door. Surely, we have likely supposed, the deadly conditions that prevailed in 1911 have long since been corrected. Alas, the Imperial experience shows they have not. Nor is it correct to suppose that it is only in the South that such elementary violations of decency persist. These days, the center of America’s garment industry (that small fraction of it which has remained domestic) is in Los Angeles, and the sweatshop conditions that prevail there are not so different from those that prevailed in New York City in 1911. The countries of origin of these immigrant women, who work too many hours for too little in wages in unsafe and unsanitary conditions, have changed. The laws have also changed, but government’s laziness in enforcing the laws has remained, as has the indifference of too many employers.

All this was noticed forcefully four years back when UNITE (the trade union that was created out of a merger of the ILGWU and ACTWU), the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, and the American Jewish Congress co-sponsored a third seder in L.A.’s garment district. The featured speaker on that occasion was Freedman, who was a living link between then and now. Her death, in the fullness of time, transforms the link: once living, hence natural, it now becomes optional; dependent not on the raw memory of a remarkable survivor, but on the will and the empathy of those who are free to choose between remembering and forgetting, between compassion and indifference. It is not nostalgia that is at stake, but justice.

Labor Lore

In 1776, printers in New York City organized and declared a strike in support of the newly formed United States of America.

In 1999, New York physicians led the fight to form a national labor organization in their field.Between these dates, millions upon millions of workers built America’s premier city, fought against sweatshops and exploitation, and set the pattern for the nation’s labor union movement.

Throughout the 20th century, as the modern city took shape, waves of cheap immigrant labor built the vast infrastructure of skyscrapers, bridges, subways and factories that undergirded the city’s growth and wealth.Immigrants provided the sinews for the gargantuan effort, with some 17 million newcomers arriving at the port of New York between 1880 and 1919. They came from every European country, but the largest ethnic wave consisted of Russian and other East European Jews, who, by 1920, accounted for one in every four New Yorkers.

They came to play an extraordinary role on the picket line and in the leadership of the labor movement, and later in the struggles for civil and women’s rights.

Among the book’s “resonant voices and images that evoke the chutzpah, tenacity, creativity, and fire of working New Yorkers,” in the authors’ words, are those of many Jews.

First, there is Samuel Gompers, who as a teenager organized his fellow cigar makers in the 1860s and later founded the American Federation of Labor, serving as its president for 37 years.

Another voice is that of Natalie Zuckerman, growing up in a working class home on the Lower East Side in the late 1910s and early 1920s, who recalls that “the toilet was out in the hall, and when you wanted to take a bath, the sink in the kitchen served as a washtub.”

Jewish workers founded their own associations, beginning with the United Hebrew Trades in 1888, which fought for better conditions for fur workers. The Arbeiter Ring (Workmen’s Circle) enshrined in its 1897 constitution the motto, “Let us help one another, while we build a better world for all.”

The Jewish Labor Committee was founded in 1934 by the needle trade unions to educate their fellow Americans about the spreading dangers of Nazism and fascism.

The handsome coffee-table book is profusely illustrated with 170 black-and-white photos, many never published before, and includes the words of hundreds of workers spanning the decades of the 20th century.To the two authors, the book represents a work of professional scholarship and filial devotion. Both work at New York University, Debra Bernhardt as director of the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, and Rachel Bernstein as a teacher in the public history program.

Bernhardt grew up in an extended Michigan family of unionized school teachers and iron miners. Bernstein, a native Angelena, is the daughter of Harry Bernstein, for many years labor editor of the Los Angeles Times, and Joanne Farrell Bernstein, who worked as a labor organizer in the South during the 1950s.

“Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives: A Pictorial History of Working People in New York City” by Debra E. Bernhardt and Rachel Bernstein. New York, New York University Press, 240 pp. $29.95.nIn 1776, printers in New York City organized and declared a strike in support of the newly formed United States of America.