Never Let Them See You Sweat

UNITE takes on the Wal-Marts of the world.

David Moberg

In an unprecedented international campaign to organize garment workers, unions in the United States, Asia and Central America are joining with student and religious groups to target the real powers in the global apparel business: big brand-name merchandisers like Eddie Bauer, Ann Taylor, Gap, J. Crew, Abercrombie & Fitch and the major retail chains. 

The clothing industry has changed dramatically in the past few decades: Roughly 30 major retailers now dominate the business, subcontracting work to thousands of workplaces employing 2 million people in 150 countries, whether in massive factories in China or Indonesia, highly mobile small workshops in Central America, or even individual homework in the United States. Retailers led by the Wal-Marts of the world determine the price, and the contractors have no choice,” says new UNITE President Bruce Raynor, who is spearheading the global organizing drive. It’s their decision whether a product will be made in a sweatshop.” 

UNITE estimates that 80 percent of the workers producing clothing for U.S. retailers are working under conditions that systematically violate local and international law.” Retailers know if a seam is one-eighth inch off, but they say they don’t know it’s made with child labor,” Raynor says. Bullshit. They know exactly what’s going on, and we’ll hold them accountable.” 

Beyond fashion and style, retailers increasingly are selling their brand image, and none of them wants its hipness compromised by association with child labor, prison labor, unsafe working conditions or sexual exploitation. The new retailer campaign, building on the anti-sweatshop efforts focused on individual companies like Nike, aims to tackle the entire industry. 

Economist Robert Pollin estimates that only about $55 of the $1,831 spent annually by the average American family on clothing actually goes to production workers. Quadrupling worker wages would cost each family of four a little over $150. Surveys show that 85 percent of Americans say they would willingly pay more for clothes to make sure they weren’t made under sweatshop conditions. 

The UNITE campaign is starting with publicity and demonstrations aimed at roughly 10 companies, drawing on mobilization of campus and church supporters – especially a new Progressive Religious Partnership – as well as UNITE’s own members. The field will be narrowed to one principal target for the all-important Christmas season, based on consultations with allies around the world and on how willing each company is to negotiate with UNITE and its partners. (At least one major retailer has already approached the union to discuss how to improve conditions in contractor factories and avoid being targeted.) 

UNITE expects retailers to support a living wage, safe working conditions and the right of workers to organize a union. In July, for example, UNITE and other groups persuaded Liz Claiborne to issue a statement supporting the right to organize a union at two factories in Guatemala where pro-union workers had been physically attacked, forced to resign and threatened with death, apparently with the encouragement of the Korean contractors. After the statement, the union workers were able to return to their jobs. 

UNITE also wants to persuade retailers to direct more of their domestic work to union shops. This would be a prelude to new organizing of domestic companies, but UNITE has no plans for a massive organizing drive targeting one company, as it did several years ago with GUESS – which promptly shifted most of its jeans production to Mexico as the union gained ground in its Los Angeles factories. Traditional organizing efforts don’t deal with the reality retailers have created,” says UNITE organizing director Mark Fleishman, but if the new Global Justice for Garment Workers campaign is successful, we’ll organize here.” 

UNITE recognizes that such a campaign must deliver victories for its partners overseas, which now include unions or workers rights groups in Thailand, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Hong Kong and Canada. Fleishman envisions unions in each of these countries increasingly coordinating work and sharing information in organizing drives, taking advantage of the leverage that UNITE can negotiate in advance with the major retailers through its campaign to pressure the industry. 

Because the dynamics of the industry affect every company, UNITE hopes to change the rules of the business rather than try to find a few good companies and certify their behavior. It has criticized most of the efforts to set codes and invite monitors to inspect factories, arguing that ultimately workers organized in unions must be able to bargain with employers and enforce standards in their own workplaces. 

Although raising standards overseas may help the apparel industry in the United States, work isn’t going to come back to the United States from Central America, Cambodia or China,” acknowledges UNITE Vice President Susan Cowell. The globalization of the industry is complete and irreversible. What is still to be determined is what the conditions are like everywhere, what regulatory apparatus, what rights, what rules of the game. Unless we change the rules, it will be bad for the industry everywhere.”

David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue