Garment Factory Workers in Southern California Are Calling for a Boycott of American Apparel

Mario Vasquez

(Fuzzytek / Flickr)

The Gen­er­al Broth­er­hood of Amer­i­can Appar­el Work­ers (GBWAA), a union for gar­ment work­ers at Amer­i­can Apparel’s south­ern Cal­i­for­nia man­u­fac­tur­ing facil­i­ties — one of which, its down­town Los Ange­les loca­tion, is the largest gar­ment-mak­ing fac­to­ry in the coun­try — has called for a boy­cott of the brand’s mer­chan­dise, point­ing to mass lay­offs and reduced com­pen­sa­tion and ben­e­fits that have inten­si­fied since new man­age­ment in Jan­u­ary 2015 began a process of post-bank­rupt­cy restruc­tur­ing through­out the corporation.

GBWAA is cur­rent­ly await­ing a cer­ti­fi­ca­tion elec­tion date from the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board, and work­ers with the union say they are call­ing for the boy­cott because Amer­i­can Appar­el con­sumers must know the cor­po­ra­tion is not the high-wage, sweat­shop-free com­pa­ny once mar­ket­ed itself to be, espe­cial­ly since Paula Schnei­der replaced Amer­i­can Appar­el founder Dov Char­ney as chief exec­u­tive offi­cer of the corporation. 

Schnei­der’s appoint­ment was approved by a cor­po­rate board that had been most­ly hand picked by the hedge fund Stan­dard Gen­er­al, who effec­tive­ly had con­trol of the com­pa­ny after a failed bid by Char­ney to regain con­trol. Pre­vi­ous­ly oust­ed as CEO amid reports of alleged sex­u­al mis­con­duct, Char­ney saw mil­lions of his vot­ing shares go to Stan­dard Gen­er­al. When the com­pa­ny filed for bank­rupt­cy in Octo­ber 2015, claim­ing its debt was insur­mount­able, com­plete own­er­ship went to the company’s prin­ci­pal debthold­ers: Gold­man Sachs Asset Man­age­ment, Monarch Alter­na­tive Cap­i­tal, Col­i­se­um Cap­i­tal, Pent­wa­ter Cap­i­tal Man­age­ment and Stan­dard Gen­er­al (famous for their pre­vi­ous alleged hos­tile takeover of Radioshack), who kept on Schnei­der as CEO — much to the dis­may of Char­ney and work­ers at Amer­i­can Appar­el pro­duc­tion sites that had already began organizing.

Union pres­i­dent Stephanie Padil­ha dos San­tos tells In These Times, If you’re used to buy­ing Amer­i­can Appar­el and think that the com­pa­ny is great and that the whole con­cept of pay­ing fair wages in [the gar­ment] indus­try was what made the com­pa­ny a huge suc­cess, then we invite you now to boy­cott the brand because it is no longer sweatshop-free.”

Padil­ha alleges that the com­pa­ny has been out­sourc­ing pro­duc­tion to oth­er sweat­shops” around Los Ange­les, while reduc­ing the once rel­a­tive­ly high wages earned by pro­duc­tion work­ers at the com­pa­ny, which were the high­est in the world, accord­ing to the com­pa­ny.

Amer­i­can Appar­el did not respond to requests for com­ment by In These Times.

Mean­while, in anoth­er round of lay­offs, over 500 work­ers are report­ed to have been laid off this April as part of what Schnei­der has called a redesign of [their] pro­duc­tion process.”

Vic­tor Nar­ro, Project Direc­tor at the UCLA Labor Cen­ter, says that Amer­i­can Appar­el was famous for pro­vid­ing high-wage gar­ment jobs that are sel­dom seen for the immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties typ­i­cal­ly doing the work in Los Ange­les. These gar­ment work­ers are not going to be able to find a sim­i­lar type of work­place in the indus­try,” Nar­ro says. 

Padil­ha says that after being abrupt­ly let go with lit­tle notice, All the dig­ni­ty that the com­pa­ny pro­vid­ed [the laid-off work­ers] will be gone and they’re going to have to go back to the poor real­i­ty of the gar­ment indus­try.” In the past, GBWAA has led work stop­pages over decreased con­di­tions and has filed dozens of unfair labor prac­tices against the com­pa­ny since Schnei­der took over. Padil­ha believes a union can put a check on fur­ther lay­offs and sta­bi­lizes the free falling wages and hours for the gar­ment work­ers. Amer­i­can Appar­el did not respond to requests for com­ment by In These Times in regards to GBWAA claims.

The com­pa­ny, how­ev­er, has stressed that the GBWAA could not fair­ly rep­re­sent the inter­ests of its near 4,000 pro­duc­tion work­ers, even if elect­ed” because of Charney’s appear­ances at union func­tions through­out 2015. Mr. Char­ney has used every tac­tic imag­in­able to claw his way back to the head of the com­pa­ny — includ­ing orga­niz­ing work­ers to demand his return as CEO,” says a let­ter by Amer­i­can Appar­el legal rep­re­sen­ta­tives, ask­ing a U.S Dis­trict Court to force Char­ney to appear at NLRB hear­ings to pro­vide tes­ti­mo­ny as well as sub­mit doc­u­ments relat­ing to GBWAA in its appeal of the union’s peti­tion for elec­tion. The appeal cen­ters on the claim that GBWAA is a Char­ney-cre­at­ed entity.

Nati­vo Lopez, an orga­niz­er in Los Ange­les who has worked with Amer­i­can Appar­el work­ers over issues of immi­grant rights since 2009, says that the company’s alle­ga­tions are absolute­ly false.” Lopez says that gar­ment work­ers active in Lopez’s immi­grant rights advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tion, Her­man­dad Mex­i­cana, helped lead orga­niz­ing, with Lopez serv­ing in a vol­un­tary advi­so­ry posi­tion. Thus, GBWAA is claim­ing it is an inde­pen­dent union — not a prod­uct of Charney.

Work­ers, he says, only focused on the return of Char­ney to com­pa­ny lead­er­ship ini­tial­ly because work­ing under him, in his admin­is­tra­tion, [they were] enjoy­ing above-min­i­mum wage and ben­e­fits that they had nev­er pre­vi­ous­ly expe­ri­enced in any oth­er appar­el com­pa­ny where they had been employed.”

The Save Amer­i­can Appar­el’ slo­gan has been changed to Boy­cott Amer­i­can Appar­el,” Lopez says, pre­dict­ing an entire off­shoring of Amer­i­can Apparel’s domes­tic man­u­fac­tur­ing to low-wage coun­tries, join­ing the approx­i­mate­ly 97 per­cent of appar­el brands in this coun­try who do not pro­duce their cloth­ing in the Unit­ed States. Onlook­ers from the finance world have said the same else­where. It’s no longer the same Amer­i­can Appar­el,” Lopez tells In These Times.

The last pub­lic union cam­paign at Amer­i­can Appar­el gar­ment fac­to­ries occurred in 2003, when UNITE (the gar­ment work­ers union that soon after merged with HERE to form UNITE HERE) tried to orga­nize work­ers in the down­town man­u­fac­tur­ing hub. Char­ney was not sup­port­ive, accord­ing to Stephen Wishart, a senior research ana­lyst with UNITE HERE at the time, who said of the cam­paign:

The company’s activ­i­ties includ­ed hold­ing cap­tive meet­ings with employ­ees, inter­ro­gat­ing employ­ees about their union activ­i­ties and sym­pa­thies, solic­it­ing employ­ees to ask the union to return their union autho­riza­tion cards, dis­trib­ut­ing anti-union arm­bands and T‑shirts, and requir­ing all employ­ees to attend an anti-union ral­ly. The company’s most dev­as­tat­ing tac­tic, though, was threat­en­ing to shut down the plant if the work­ers organized.

Char­ney, speak­ing to the Los Ange­les Busi­ness Review in 2004 about the unsuc­cess­ful union orga­niz­ing cam­paign, called unions an obsta­cle”:

The con­cept of a union is a check against greed on the part of the employ­er. If I real­ly want­ed to be moti­vat­ed by greed alone and pay the low­est pos­si­ble wage, I would­n’t be work­ing in this fac­to­ry. To say, Let’s appoint a union to rep­re­sent the work­ers even fur­ther” may put into dis­e­qui­lib­ri­um the del­i­cate bal­ance that I’ve cre­at­ed between all the parties.

Nar­ro says that although wages were high at Amer­i­can Appar­el, the ben­e­fits of union col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ments have always been sore­ly lack­ing and it remains evi­dent in its cur­rent restruc­tur­ing process. If he had worked some­thing out with UNITE back in 2002, and they agreed to a union con­tract, [then] these work­ers would have had a lot of pro­tec­tion right now. Noth­ing is guar­an­teed, but they would not have been as vul­ner­a­ble to the bank­rupt­cy and the down­siz­ing and the man­age­ment decisions.”

Union con­tracts would cre­ate mech­a­nisms to pro­tect work­ers as much as pos­si­ble,” says Nar­ro. Orga­niz­ing amid the corporation’s restruc­tur­ing is hard­er to do now because there’s noth­ing to enforce,” he adds.

For now, GBWAA hopes the boy­cott will bring to the light the urgency they feel is required in its cer­ti­fi­ca­tion efforts, espe­cial­ly as pre­dict­ed fur­ther lay­offs loom. Padil­ha says the NLRB needs to act now, telling me, As soon as a hedge fund takes over, the com­pa­ny goes into bank­rupt­cy. Work­ers get­ting laid off, hav­ing their rights ripped apart, and they make no mon­ey. Every­thing is chang­ing; out­sourc­ing pro­duc­tion. There [are] enough rea­sons why this elec­tion is what work­ers need right now.”

Mario Vasquez is a writer from south­ern Cal­i­for­nia. He is a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to Work­ing In These Times. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @mario_vsqz or email him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)/*= 0)out += unescape(l[i].replace(/^\s\s*/, &#’));while ( – j >= 0)if (el[j].getAttribute(‘data-eeEncEmail_JkRTuBCpnw’))el[j].innerHTML = out;/*]]>*/.
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