LA Sweatshops: Common Threads In Struggle

— Edna Bonacich

EDNA BONACICH IS a Professor of Sociology and Ethnic Studies at the University of California-Riverside. She has written and edited a number of publications on immigration, global restructuring, and labor markets. She has recently completed a draft of a book on the apparel industry in Los Angeles, entitled Behind the Label: Inequality in the Los Angeles Garment Industry, co-authored with Richard Appelbaum.

For the past seven years, Professor Bonacich has been active as a volunteer in the efforts to help garment workers organize in the Los Angeles area. Los Angeles is currently home to the largest concentration of garment workers in the United States (120,000), and apparel is the largest manufacturing industry in LA. Many of the workers in the industry work in sweatshop conditions, and wage rates in LA are among the lowest in the country.

Traditionally, workers in the industry were organized by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) or the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU). In 1995, these two unions merged to form UNITE—the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees. One of the union's major campaigns in the last several years has been targeted at GUESS? Inc., an LA-based designer jeans company. Like the Nike campaign, GUESS? support work has tried to get consumers to recognize that their clothing was made with sweatshop labor in order to put consumer pressure on the manufacturer to raise wages and improve conditions for employees.

Professor Bonacich has worked as a volunteer researcher for ILGWU, and was a founding member of Common Threads, a women's group formed to educate people about the need to support organizing among garment workers. She was interviewed by Stephanie Luce.

SL: Can you tell me how you originally got involved in the garment workers campaign?

EB: I was part of a research project at the Asian American Center at UCLA, with a group of people who were studying Asian immigrants in the LA area within the context of global restructuring. We divided up the work, and I decided to take the garment industry as a focus. I got very interested in the work and wanted to stay involved, and early on I made the decision that I wanted the research to be relevant to the workers.

The ILG was the only game in town, so I began meeting with the local Director of Organizing to discuss the characteristics of the LA industry, the implication of these characteristics for organizing, and the union's research needs. I became active in the union's Garment Workers' Justice Center, and helped with their educational program. I gradually became a local researcher (as a volunteer) for the organizing department.

SL: How did you manage to balance all that work with your job as an academic?

EB: Poorly. I worked with the union almost full time for a couple summers, but also a fair amount during the school year, so it was hard to balance. After the merger the International became much more involved, and brought in their own professional researchers and staff, so I have cut back since then.

SL: How did Common Threads begin?

EB: I was on the board of LAMAP (the Los Angeles Manufacturing Action Project) for a period, and we had an event at the Southern California Library. I gave a brief talk on working with the ILG, and afterwards, Karen Brodkin (an anthropologist at UCLA and an old friend) came up and said “How can I help?”

We got together for breakfast and talked about how to get the women's movement more involved with the labor movement. We discussed how the labor movement does community outreach, but tends to ignore the women's movement. We formed a group of about seven women interested in the issue and Common Threads grew out of that nucleus.

We knew that the women's movement played a role in the original garment workers strikes in New York, and we were building on that idea. Karen had connections with progressive women artists, and had the idea of creating an artist's collective. Our goal was to help prepare the ground for the community, especially womens groups, to be more receptive to union organizing.

Our relationship with the union was a bit awkward. We debated how much we wanted to be affiliated with the union. However, we agreed that we wanted to be useful to the efforts to organize garment workers and supported the GUESS? campaign. Even though we weren't an arm of UNITE, GUESS? acted as though we were.

Common Threads had somewhat of a rotating membership, with about thirty to forty members, including the artists. We debated whether or not to invite men into the group, but we decided against it. As a group of women, we were opposed to bureaucracy, and never chose a chair or developed any formal structure. We had an anarchistic, spontaneous quality that made the group fun to be a part of.

We did a number of creative projects, from street theater to a literary reading at Midnight Special [a bookstore in Santa Monica]. We held events with the workers, such as a picnic, and joined the picket line a number of times. A slide show was developed by Becky Mead and we showed it an gave talks to raise awareness. We also did a couple of late night posterings around town.

We developed a banner that said “The Community is Watching,” an idea developed by Roxane Auer. One of our major projects created by the artists, led by Judy Branfman, was a display about the history of LA garment workers in nine huge windows in an abandoned department store downtown.

SL: Some people say that this kind of labor support work is ineffective—that tactics such as consumer boycotts don't work, and that the support work itself is often patronizing.

EB: We weren't trying to do any worker organizing ourselves. We were trying to create an environment where the public would be open to union organizing, and less likely to share the general negative political attitude towards unions. We wanted to do some outreach to mainstream women's groups, like NOW and the LA Commissions on Women, to have an impact on the general attitude of women's groups towards unions and labor organizing.

One of our slogans was “Make LA a worker friendly city” or “Make LA an immigrant friendly city”—as opposed to the dominant, Mayor's office ideology of “Make LA a business friendly city.” I don't think it was patronizing for us to get involved in this way, in trying to change the receptiveness of the city to the labor movement.

SL: How successful do you think you were?

EB: We were only minimally successful with the mainstream women's organizations, but had more success with student groups at the high school and university level. I do think we played a role in the GUESS? campaign, especially before the merger, when our relationship to the union was closer. We added energy, creativity, and especially humor to events, and I think the workers appreciated having the support. And we definitely attracted GUESS?'s attention, shown in the fact that they sued us.

SL: What was the suit about?

EB: GUESS? sued us because one of our members, Julia Stein, organized a literary reading at the Midnight Special Bookstore in support of the GUESS? workers.

GUESS? sued us for clander, because we said that they used sweatshops (which they do). However, GUESS? dropped the suit. I think they began to appear so ridiculous in the press—giant corporation beats up on a tiny women's group, on a group of poets—that they decided to drop it.

The argument for the First Amendment seemed so strong in this case: If you can't speak out at a literary reading in a bookstore, without fear of a big company suing you for slander, when can you speak? We played this idea up, and essentially beat up on them, so that they became a laughing stock, trying to prevent this small group of people from holding literary readings.

After they dropped the suit we held another reading at Midnight Special, entitled “The Literary Reading that GUESS? could not stop,” and at least twice as many people attended.

SL: There was a Dignity Seder for the garment workers earlier this year, where a survivor of the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory fire spoke along with a young woman currently working in the garment industry in L.A. Their stories were amazingly similar—it was inspiring to hear them, but depressing to think of how little things have changed. Did you feel that way? Do you think there has been progress in the industry?

EB: There has been progress. After that fire [in 1911, where 146 Triangle Shirt Waist workers perished], the industry was unionized. When the New Deal was passed, workers won a range of rights, such as the minimum wage, and for a long period sweatshops pretty much disappeared.

They have started to reappear with globalization. Even in LA, the industry was pretty much unionized, and there were nowhere near the amount of sweatshops there are today. The social deterioration is shown in many other aspects of society, such as the rise in homelessness, welfare reform, and increasing wage inequality. We are witnessing the general breakdown of the social contract.

SL: I know you find the conditions for workers under globalization somewhat dismal, but I guess you are optimistic enough about the chances to keep working for change.

EB: I am not sure if optimistic is the right word. The struggle continues. It's the largest industry in LA, the conditions of workers is bad. The struggle has to happen. I don't think we have the key to success, but there are still many things to be done, many strategies to try. If the GUESS? campaign is won, it will have a big impact on the LA apparel industry. Industry leaders are terrified of this (though they'd never admit it), so that even though many of them despise GUESS? they have aligned with them in their scurrilous attacks on the union and on the workers who want a union.

SL: What is your current involvement in the struggle?

EB: I am thinking of getting more involved in the Garment Workers Justice Center and their efforts to provide an educational and political program for garment workers in general.

SL: How has all of this affected your work as a teacher and academic?

EB: By being involved in a social struggle of this sort, you learn first hand, you witness the way in which power is exercised in this society. You see how capitalists have access to the state in a way that workers and unions do not. You see how the courts, the police, the press are all stacked. It is a profound experience, one that you can share with your students. For example, I gave students in a class an “action” assignment, and many of them chose to leaflet at a GUESS? store located in a Riverside mall. They were quickly thrown out by security guards, learning the limits of “free speech” in a context of “private property.”

For many, it was their first exposure to exercising their rights to protest and also to the hidden power that lurks beneath the surface to deny these rights.

Seeing how power is exercised by those who have it in this society opens one's eyes to the profound need for power on our side. You recognize the need to build organizational strength and resources. You come to see the need to inflict damage in order to budge those who hold the power. You realize that their ruthlessness knows no bounds. You learn that soft, liberal notions of hoping you can sit down and work it out in a civilized manner are out of this world. You see that the class struggle is serious, and that the capitalists are waging it without remorse. I feel I have been stripped of many illusions.

ATC 73, March-April 1998

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