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After a decade of antisweatshop organizing, activists say it's time they pulled together

 June 28, 2002


Picketers surround an outlet of a trendy clothing chain and hand out leaflets about labor conditions on the Pacific island of Saipan. A mainline church sponsors a talk on how the world's largest sneaker companies make their shoes with sweatshop labor in Indonesia. A union hall hosts a Mexican worker touring the United States to raise awareness about maquiladoras, as export-processing factories are known in her nation. Students at the local college take over a campus building, demanding that the school quit licensing its logo to appear on goods made in sweatshops. Area youths cover high-school bathroom walls with stickers demanding that their school district stop purchasing sweatshop-produced athletic jerseys.

Such events are happening with ever-greater frequency in cities across the United States. Dozens of overlapping activist networks and hundreds of groups—some with paid staffing and thousands of supporters—are mobilizing to improve wages and conditions in sweatshops. Most U.S. antisweatshop groups specialize in one of four areas: generating mainstream media attention, mobilizing activists nationwide, developing a base in a particular community, or supporting workers of a particular company or location. Often these specialties complement each other and fuel powerful campaigns, such as one that helped a union win recognition last year at a plant producing for Nike and Reebok in Mexico.

Picking up steam since the early 1990s, the movement has pushed the sweatshop issue into the national consciousness, forcing corporations to adopt “codes of conduct” for their suppliers, creating organizations to monitor compliance with the codes, and helping workers in at least two overseas sweatshops forge union contracts. “There have been great advances,” says Stephen Coats, executive director of the Chicago-based U.S./Labor Education in the Americas Project (US/LEAP). “We are light years ahead in terms of the power we can bring to bear on companies.”

But the movement has yet to significantly improve the industry’s wages and labor conditions, either in the United States or abroad. The missing ingredients, leading activists say, include sweatfree alternatives for consumers, resources for workers to organize industrywide, and enforceable laws and international pacts protecting worker rights.

Underlying these problems, the activists say, is a lack of antisweatshop coordination. “Internally to the movement there’s not enough coherence around strategy, vision or how to move forward,” says Lynda Yanz, director of the Toronto-based Maquila Solidarity Network. “There are divisions around a whole range of things, and a lack of coordination.”

U.S. ORGANIZING AGAINST sweatshops dates back to the 1890s, when progressives such as Jane Addams and Florence Kelley helped garment workers organize legislative campaigns. But sweatshops remained widespread until workers formed unions and carried out industrywide strikes. The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, formed in 1900, and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, founded in 1914, won labor contracts that dramatically improved wages and working conditions and set up programs for worker health care, pensions and even housing. By mid-century, the two unions and the Textile Workers Union of America, formed in 1939, represented nearly 1 million workers.

In the 1960s, however, apparel production began relocating from northern cities to the U.S. South and eventually to Central America, the Caribbean and Asia. Factories in more than 60 nations now supply the U.S. market. And, as unionized factories have closed in the United States, shady garment-assembly shops have made a comeback, especially in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. More than half of the apparel production in this country now happens in illegal sweatshops, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

All told, about 75 percent of clothing sold in the United States is made in sweatshops. The typical worker is a young woman whose wages leave her struggling at less than one-third of her country’s official poverty level. Her workweek may extend to 80 hours or more. Her chances of encountering sexual harassment, pregnancy discrimination and safety hazards are high. She’d likely be fired for trying to form a union.

Mergers among the three apparel and textile unions led to the 1995 creation of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees. With dwindling resources and a membership of just 150,000, UNITE has suspended efforts to organize workers in the new sweatshops and instead concentrated on large garment factories of the U.S. South and on distribution centers and industrial laundries.

Unions in developing countries, similarly, have lacked the power to win contracts with sweatshop owners, forge stronger national labor laws or win acceptance of standards set by the International Labor Organization, part of the United Nations. (The United States has held out against signing many ILO standards.)

“Taking on the retail industry requires an international solution,” UNITE organizer Ginny Coughlin says. Toward that end, UNITE has strengthened ties with unions and worker organizations in the garment and textile sectors of 10 countries, including Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, China, Thailand and Indonesia.

The unions have found allies among activists who cut their teeth opposing President Ronald Reagan’s wars in Central America during the 1980s. As the wars abated and more U.S. apparel production moved to Central America, groups such as the National Labor Committee, based in New York City, and Global Exchange, based in San Francisco, turned their attention to sweatshops.

The antisweatshop movement gained momentum after the U.S. Labor Department’s 1995 discovery of 72 Thai immigrants enslaved by a clandestine shop in El Monte, California. The shop was assembling garments sold by big-name retailers such as Mervyn’s, Montgomery Ward, Sears and Target.

The National Labor Committee did more than any other group to focus U.S. public attention on sweatshop practices. The committee captured extensive media coverage with a series of exposés, including a 1996 disclosure that Wal-Mart clothing marketed under Kathie Lee Gifford’s name was produced in Honduras by 13-year-old girls working 13-hour shifts for 31 cents an hour. When Kathie Lee cried on TV, the movement was on the national radar.

Global Exchange expanded the awareness with high-profile litigation, including a 1999 suit against U.S. corporations that held workers in virtual slavery on Saipan, the largest island of the U.S. “commonwealth” known as the Northern Marianas. Global Exchange backed the suit with demonstrations and picket lines at GAP stores and company headquarters in San Francisco. Most of the retailers eventually settled, agreeing to pay for independent monitoring of the plants.

GROUPS FOCUSING ON MASS mobilization constitute the movement’s second pillar. Two based in Washington, D.C.—the Campaign for Labor Rights (CLR), founded in 1993, and United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), initiated in 1997—have created communication networks to mobilize supporters in dozens of U.S. locations simultaneously. “We work on campaigns that support workers when they’re trying to organize sweatshops,” says Daisy Pitkin, CLR’s national coordinator. “We become involved when a U.S. retail company is involved, because that’s how grassroots activists can get a handle. We never work on a campaign alone. We always work in coalition with other groups.”

USAS chapters pressure universities across the country to keep school names and logos off sweatshop clothing. “The organization functions like an information clearinghouse,” says Amber Gallup, who became the USAS field coordinator after volunteering for the Indiana University chapter. “We have the strategy of national, coordinated grassroots action that seems to have worked really well in a couple of campaigns. We have built student power on campus to leverage our administrators and then leverage large companies to make real changes in workers’ lives.”

The group’s idealism and youthful energy have added life to more than the antisweatshop movement. USAS activists have backed campus and community labor organizing, and many have been hired by unions.

The third type of antisweatshop group focuses on a local base, usually through churches or K–12 schools. The most powerful example is the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition, a network of nine affiliates. Last year the coalition convinced the state legislature and Gov. George Pataki to enact a law permitting schools to reject bids from companies for using sweatshop labor. Next fall the coalition will work with teacher unions and child-labor activists on a campaign for sweatfree purchasing policies in the state’s 740 school districts.

Another group known for its local base is the Resource Center of the Americas, which has mobilized Minnesotans against sweatshop practices since 1995. The group has been organizing peer education in middle schools, high schools and colleges for years. A new campaign, SweatFree Minneapolis, is focusing on city purchasing policies. “You can’t have a national movement if you don’t have strong local components,” says Larry Weiss, director of the Resource Center’s Labor, Globalization and Human Rights Project. “When the National Labor Committee did its first tour in 1995 with Salvadoran and Honduran workers, which was the beginning of its GAP campaign, they came here first. When they toured fired workers from Nicaragua in 2000, we were the kickoff spot again.”

The fourth antisweatshop pillar—groups focusing on a particular company or location—includes US/LEAP, Educating for Justice, Sweatshop Watch, STITCH, Make the Road by Walking and many others.

The power all four types of groups can wield when coordinated is evident at Mex Mode, a Korean-owned sweatshop in the central Mexican state of Puebla. The plant, formerly called Kukdong, makes fleece garments for Reebok and Nike. When its workers went on strike for union recognition in January 2001, the AFL-CIO’s Mexico City office relayed the news to U.S. antisweatshop groups.

USAS sent members to investigate the factory and used its involvement in a factory-monitoring organization called the Worker Rights Consortium to pressure university administrations. “We created list-serves and conference calls and we started coordinating this campaign together,” Gallup says. “We got 30 schools to send letters to Nike on the same day. Nike was forced by the pressure of these administrators—and the fear of losing this college market and having its public image affected—to get its manufacturer to recognize an independent union, and it was forced to keep the production there.”

CLR, for its part, mobilized religious groups, union locals and others to visit 40 of Mexico’s 45 consular offices across the United States last July 16–18. Others rallying for the Kukdong workers included Global Exchange, US/LEAP, the International Labor Rights Fund and myriad local groups in Canada, the United States, Europe and Australia.

The workers won their first union contract in September and another this April. “This is the first time that workers in [Mexico’s] maquiladora zones have been able to create an independent union,” Gallup says.

SOME CORPORATIONS HAVE responded to the movement by writing “codes of conduct” for their suppliers. But any monitoring of factory compliance typically is assigned to for-profit contractors specializing in “quality improvement.” The corporate codes and inspections improve public relations, but seldom improve wages and factory conditions.

Under pressure from the movement, some apparel corporations have agreed to “multi-stakeholder arrangements”—standards and enforcement mechanisms set by the company, consumers and sometimes workers, local NGOs and other groups. The standards cover the company or a particular assembly plant. Corporations with such arrangements include Nike and Liz Claiborne, the New York–based women’s clothing retailer.

In El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, additionally, the antisweatshop movement and worker groups have managed to open some factories to independent monitoring to verify whether the nation’s labor laws and U.S. apparel company codes are being followed. The most effective monitors are local NGOs or the plant’s workers: “Local groups that understand labor rights in the community can better understand the situation than commercial monitors that come in for two days,” says Yanz, the Maquila Solidarity Network director.

Industrywide standards and enforcement were topics of a task force set up by President Bill Clinton’s administration in 1996 following the El Monte raid. In 1998, however, most antisweatshop groups split from the task force, saying apparel companies dominated it. Later that year, the task force launched the Fair Labor Association (FLA) to monitor factories. Since then, about 170 colleges and universities have affiliated with the association to ensure that goods under their licenses are produced according to FLA standards.

But students and unions, arguing that the FLA has failed to carry out effective monitoring, have created an alternative, the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), and convinced another long list of colleges to join. “The WRC code includes living-wage and women’s rights components and it also works on enforcement,” says Gallup, the USAS staffer. “The WRC monitors and it publishes its findings.” Universities that fail to respond to the findings face negative publicity from students. Yanz says the WRC model has improved the FLA.

Another challenge for the movement is identifying sweatfree alternatives for consumers. “We haven’t successfully translated public consciousness into changing consumption,” says Medea Benjamin, the founding director of Global Exchange. “That’s because we haven’t been able to provide an easily accessible alternative, such as an antisweatshop label that we all agree on and that you could find in a neighborhood store.” A model is Transfair, which certifies fair-trade coffee brands.

An interesting test of sweatfree clothing’s market potential is an apparel factory launched this year in Los Angeles, the nation’s sweatshop capital. Ben Cohen, a cofounder of the Vermont-based ice cream empire Ben and Jerry’s Homemade, invested $1.5 million into the plant, which is assembling casual wear with the label SweatX. The 20 unionized employees started at $8.50 an hour with full health benefits, a pension plan, a profit-sharing plan and clean bathrooms. Cohen says orders are pouring in from unions, student groups and the music industry: “We’re hoping it demonstrates to the apparel industry that there’s a demand for products made in a nonexploitative manner, and that you can do it for a profit.”

Yet another movement hurdle is a lack of resources for labor organizing. “We need to support the unions and human rights groups in the developing world who are working with the workers,” says Barbara Briggs of the National Labor Committee. “They need collaboration and partnering, but they also need concrete support. They need money, technical help and communications equipment.”

Making the most of such solidarity would require an industrywide strategy. “The U.S. garment industry wasn’t organized on a factory-by- factory basis,” says Coats, the US/LEAP director. “It was organized as an industry.”

Industrywide organizing would most likely occur country-by-country, and it would be most successful with cross-border solidarity, including strikes and boycotts. Cooperation between unions in Mexico, Canada and the United States already is on the rise.

The work would gain clout if economic treaties such as the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas included enforceable labor rights protections. “We need to pass a law here saying the United States can’t be part of any pact that doesn’t include workers’ rights,” Gallup says. “The company’s brand name is protected; the 16-year-old worker who made the shirt must also be protected. Until we can do that, all of our work is only partial.”

THE MOVEMENT’S EFFECT on labor conditions ultimately depends on greater coordination among the antisweatshop actors. This means agreeing on which corporations to target and which union organizing to support, joining forces behind proworker legislation and treaty proposals, and linking local grassroots bases for nationwide responses when workers are fired for organizing. “We’re often behind in bringing all of our leverage to bear,” Coats says. “By the time people in the north hear about a problem, it’s often too late.”

Like any social-change movement, the antisweatshop upsurge includes differing strategies, organizational rivalries and personality conflicts. “Many of the key players don’t talk to each other,” notes Brian O’Shaughnessy, director of the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition. “We need the National Labor Committee, the Resource Center of the Americas, Global Exchange, the Campaign for Labor Rights and others to come together and be serious about partnering with the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition, the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice and other groups that raise the issue from an ethical, moral perspective.”

A large antisweatshop alliance could convince foundations to devote more money to the movement. A national coordinating center, perhaps modeled after Canada’s Maquila Solidarity Network, could enable unions, NGOs, faith-based groups and students to develop a coherent strategy and increase the movement’s political power.

Two new initiatives appear to be steps in the right direction. The National Labor Committee is planning an international effort, the Abolish Sweatshops Campaign, modeled after the campaign to abolish land mines. Participants include USAS, the International Labor Rights Fund, TransAfrica, the United Steel Workers of America and labor and NGO leaders in Nicaragua, Honduras, Bangladesh, Hong Kong and Mexico.

The other promising initiative is called SweatFree Communities. “We’re still growing as a movement—growing in both our reach and creativity,” says Weiss, the Resource Center organizer. “And we’re more connected than ever with workers in the various places. I believe we’re close to some changes for apparel workers, both in terms of organizing and conditions.”

Behind the Label: The leading antisweatshop Web site. Sponsors include UNITE and United Students Against Sweatshops. Based in New York City. 212- 463-7437.

Campaign for Labor Rights: CLR informs and mobilizes grassroots antisweatshop activists in coordination with national and international groups, and with groups in more than 500 U.S. communities. Founded in 1993. Based in Washington, D.C. Daisy Pitkin, national coordinator. 202- 544-9355.

Educating for Justice: Founded in 2000 by Jim Keady, fired as assistant soccer coach at St. John’s University in New York City for refusing to wear the Nike logo. Based in Belmar, New Jersey.

Fair Labor Association: An outgrowth of the White House-created Apparel Industry Partnership. Dominated by 13 apparel corporations, including Nike, Reebok and Liz Claiborne. (antisweatshop groups have formed an FLA alternative, the Worker Rights Consortium.) Founded in 1998. Based in Washington, D.C. Auret van Heerden, executive director. 202-898-1000.

Global Exchange: A center for research, education and action promoting people-to-people ties around the world. Fights sweatshops, works for fair trade and organizes ‘reality tours.’ Founded in 1988. Based in San Francisco. Medea Benjamin, founding director. 415-255-7296.

International Labor Rights Fund: Promotes enforcement of rights through public education and mobilization, research, litigation, legislation and work with labor groups, governments and businesses. Founded in 1986. Based in Washington, D.C. Terry Collingsworth, executive director. 202- 347-4100.

Make the Road by Walking: Led by 300 dues-paying members, primarily low- income Latino and African American workers in Brooklyn (Bushwick and nearby neighborhoods). Its Trabajadores en Acción project sets up workplace picket lines and files suits to win back-pay from unscrupulous employers. Founded in 1997. Based in New York City. Steve Jenkins, coordinator. 718-418-7690.

Maquila Solidarity Network: Coordinates Canadian unions, student groups, nongovernmental organizations and faith-based groups for solidarity with sweatshop organizers in Mexico, Central America and Asia. Pressures particular corporations about their suppliers and large institutions about their purchasing habits. Founded in 1995. Based in Toronto. Lynda Yanz, director. 416-532-8584.

National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice: Educates, organizes and mobilizes the U.S. religious community in campaigns for low-wage workers. Develops resources, engages religious employers and organizes local interfaith groups. Based in Chicago. Kim Bobo, executive director. 773- 728-8400.

National Labor Committee: Educates and engages the U.S. public. Works with local, national and international groups to build coalitions such as the Abolish Sweatshops Campaign. Exposed Kathy Lee Gifford. Founded in 1981. Based in New York City. Charles Kernaghan, executive director. 212- 242-3002.

New York State Labor-Religion Coalition: nonsectarian alliance of unions, religious institutions, youth groups and individuals. Helps low-wage workers in New York and developing countries take on corporations. Formed in 1980. Based in Albany, New York. Brian O’Shaughnessy, director. 518- 459-5400.

Resource Center of the Americas: Organizing projects, language classes, a bookstore, café, library, immigrant workers center, magazine and more. 1,500 members, mostly in Minnesota. Initiated SweatFree Communities. Founded in 1983. Based in Minneapolis. Larry Weiss, director of Labor, Globalization and Human Rights. 612-276-0788 (ext. 19).

STITCH: Network of U.S. women supporting women organizing for better wages and workplace treatment in Central America. Runs weeklong programs for women activists to study Spanish and meet labor and human rights activists in Guatemala. Based in Washington, D.C. Liz O’Connor, director. 202-265-3790.

Sweatshop Watch: Coalition of labor, community, civil rights, immigrant rights, women’s, religious and student organizations. Pressures California regulators to enforce laws on wages, hours, health and safety. Founded in 1995. Based in Oakland and Los Angeles. Nikki Fortunato Bas, director. 213-748-5945.

Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees: UNITE is the result of a merger between the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union. Most members work in the United States and Canada in apparel shops, textiles, industrial laundries, distribution centers, retail shops, auto parts factories or Xerox manufacturing plants. Leads the Stop Sweatshops campaign. Founded in 1995. Based in New York City. Jenny Coughlin, organizer. 212-265-7000.

U.S./Labor Education in the Americas Project: US/LEAP, formerly the U.S./Guatemala Labor Education Project, supports worker rights in Central America, Colombia, Ecuador and Mexico, focusing on U.S. companies. Barraged New York–based dress shirt maker Phillips–Van Heusen with letters about Yoo Yang, a clothing factory in La Lima, Honduras; the letters helped keep the plant open and force Yoo Yang management to sign a union contract last December. Founded in 1987. Based in Chicago. Stephen Coats, executive director. 773-262-6502.

United Students Against Sweatshops: USAS (pronounced YOO-sass), a coalition of students on 200 campuses, focuses on the collegiate licensing industry. Raises student awareness, lobbies administrations to enact codes of conduct, and helps research and write the codes. Most recently, USAS work led eight campuses to suspend contracts with New Era Cap, a sports apparel maker in Derby, New York, where workers went on strike last July. Founded by UNITE interns in 1997. Based in Washington, D.C. Amber Gallup, programs and field coordinator. 202-667-9328 (202-no- sweat).

Worker Rights Consortium: Created by students, labor rights experts and college administrations to investigate factory conditions and help enforce codes of conduct adopted by colleges. Affiliates include 100 colleges and universities. Based in Washington, D.C. Scott Nova, executive director. 202-387-4884.



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