A Stitch in Our Time: New York’s Hispanic Garment Workers in the 1980s
TODAY’S HISPANIC worker in a New York clothing shop is likely to be a woman who recently immigrated here from a Central or South American country. Chances are that she came here along with other members of her family or met up with a relative who had come before. Upon arrival, she immediately started looking for work and found her first job when a friend or family member told her about an opening not far from home in a women’s clothing factory. During her first week, she learned how to operate an industrial sewing machine through tortuous experimentation with the pieces she was given to sew. At the end of the week she found her pay to be pitifully small, perhaps less than $10 a day. But with practice, her speed increased and her earnings increased as well.
Many women, especially undocumented workers (or “illegal aliens"), stick with their first jobs for a long while, reasoning that the boss at a new place might ask questions about immigration status or that such jobs might be located in unfamiliar neighborhoods. Sometimes a worker will find a better job when her factory temporarily runs out of work and closes, maybe a job in a union shop that has steadier work, higher wages, and even paid vacations or a few benefits. But there are more bad jobs than good jobs nowadays in New York apparel shops.
With 150,000 production jobs by official count, apparel is still the largest industry in the New York metropolitan area, but it could not compete against manufacturers operating in the low-wage countries of the Third World without a supply of immigrant women workers.1 Most United States production is carried out by contractors who pressure their workers to accept lower and lower pay, in much the same way that jobbers force the contractors to underbid each other. This setup has created a two-tiered industry: a legitimate sector and an “underground” sector. Surveying the legitimate jobs, the Department of Labor notes that apparel work pays just under $5 an hour on the average.2 But no accurate wage statistics exist for off-the-books jobs. And no one really knows how many women work in crowded, unregulated factories for wages far below accepted minimums, although one New York state senator’s investigation counted over 3,000 such factories, employing over 50,000 workers.3
Whether they work underground or on legitimate jobs, the majority of sewing machine operators usually sew pieces of a garment only—a sleeve, a collar—and they are paid a set rate for each piece sewn. There is little room for advancement, and the work is stressful and unhealthy. To cope with the difficulties that the jobs entail, both at work and at home, they depend upon a network of friends, family, and others from their homelands. But family responsibilities also add to the burden of working women, and those who are mothers must find babysitters or consider sewing at home.
Less universal as means of coping with life and work, but resources upon which some workers depend, are the church, state and city agencies, and labor unions. But these institutions can be mixed blessings for those who rely on them.
GOOD JOBS AND BAD: TWO WOMEN’S EXPERIENCES
Olga Velasco came to the United States from Ecuador in 1970 with other members of her family. She got her first job in a lower Manhattan dress shop through the recommendation of a friend who also lived in the Ecuadorian community on the city’s Upper West Side. Though she earned only around $100 a week, Olga worked at the crowded, cluttered, dirty shop as a sewing machine operator until it closed a year and a half later. Then another friend recommended her to the boss at Prudence Manufacturing, also in Manhattan. At Prudence, Olga learned to operate a jump-stitch machine, which basted the seams of the men’s vests she turned out by the dozens. Since this was a relatively skilled job, she was paid a time rate rather than a piece rate, the more common arrangement under which there is often a relentless pressure to produce. She made around $185 a week.
With its almost one hundred employees, union representation, and the greater stability of the men’s (as opposed to the women’s and children’s) apparel industry, Prudence was a good place to land a job, and Olga stayed there for eight years. She got involved with the union, serving as a shop steward, and last year she left sewing behind and accepted an offer to join the union staff as an organizer.
Isabel Magriz came to New York fifteen years ago from Puerto Rico. Since that time she has worked in a number of clothing shops. For the last six years she has worked at F & M Co., a small shop near her home in a South Bronx housing project. She is paid less than the legal minimum wage, working off-the-books so that the government will not stop sending her welfare payments.
She also supplements her income by working at home, sewing women’s dresses in her bedroom until the early morning hours. On a good week she might make $130 total from sewing in the factory and from the 15 to 40 cents per piece she earns at home. With the $87.50 she gets from welfare, the money must stretch to support her daughter and herself and leave a little extra to send occasionally to her mother in Puerto Rico.
“The boss takes 6 percent out of my pay for giving me the privilege of working off-the-books,” she said. “I just want the kids to stay in school and not turn to crime to get what they need. But now I have to work constantly, and always get left behind.”
THE BUTT END OF PRODUCTION
Apparel production in the United States today is a different industry than it was twenty years ago. Although New York is still the center of the women’s apparel industry, as it has been since the advent of ready-to-wear clothing manufacture in the latter half of the nineteenth century,4 its condition today is fragile. Official counts show the industry with less than half of the jobs counted in 1949, and the state Labor Department has predicted further job loss for the future.5 Long-established marketing structures keep the city’s industry going. Chic showrooms with displays of designers’ collections are clustered on Seventh Avenue between 31st and 42nd streets. Buyers from around the nation descend upon the city twice a year to select next season’s look.
But the “butt end” of production, its remnants here, increasingly resemble a Third World ghetto. The internationalization of production, now affecting the nation’s auto and steel industries, has long been at work in apparel, shifting the labor-intensive, low-technology jobs to low-wage areas. And the more companies packed their production off to such parts of the world, the more the industrial segment that remained came to resemble the factories abroad.
During the 1950s, New York lost jobs to low-wage domestic areas in Pennsylvania, where the wives of unemployed miners welcomed whatever jobs they could find, to Massachusetts, and to the South, where over 40 percent of United States apparel workers now reside.6 With further breakdown of work into low-skill operations, and with improvements in cargo transport during the next decades, manufacturers turned to the populations of Southeast Asia, where workers make as little as 25 cents an hour.7 As a result, imported clothes, which sell at wholesale prices 20 percent below domestic products, now constitute over 20 percent of the nation’s clothing market.8
Mainland production, however, still offers some advantages: chiefly, skilled workers and a greater ability to adjust to shifts in fashion. Thus half of the production workers in New York are engaged in making the most fashion-oriented women’s clothing.9
Such workers’ shops are small. Eight out of ten New York women’s wear shops have fewer than fifty employees, while over half of the nation’s apparel makers employing fewer than twenty workers are located in the metropolitan region.10 They are kept small by fashion, which dictates short production runs, since only small orders of a similar style can be sold. (Longer production runs mean a more standardized product, which in turn allows a greater division of labor and larger scale production, as in Levi’s and Farah’s sunbelt factories.11) Fashion has also inhibited the automation of the industry: The low volume of production and a high rate of business failure due to abrupt changes of style make investment in laser-beam cloth-cutting equipment or advanced sewing machines a risky venture. In the mid-1970s, in the industry as a whole, capital invested per worker was around $9,000, or less than a quarter of the ratio for all manufacturing.12
Finally, the built-in relationships of the industry create further downward pressure on the wages of New York apparel workers. There are relatively few “inside” shops in which all production and sales functions take place. More typically, jobbers are the entrepreneurs producing samples from designers’ patterns, buying the materials, and cutting the pieces. The work of assembling the garments is sent to “outside” contract shops. Seventy percent of the production workers in the city’s dress industry work in such contract shops.13
Contracting provides the industry with a great deal of flexibility, relieving any firm of the need to maintain factories large enough to fill maximum orders. But since it costs only a few thousand dollars to open a contract shop, there are always more contractors vying for work than there is work to be done. This situation presents jobbers with an excellent opportunity to push down labor costs, forcing the contractors to bid each other down, with the ultimate victor forcing his workers to take lower and lower wages.
Average industry wages are so low that they compare unfavorably to welfare.14 This means that apparel industry jobs are often filled by those for whom the comparison is irrelevant: undocumented aliens who do not apply for welfare out of fear of detection. At a maximum of $6,176.40 a year for a family of four, the welfare grant is itself an inadequate income. Consequently, even among women who receive welfare payments, many seek work in underground shops offering an unrecorded income, which, however meager, can supplement their benefits.
INSIDE NILDA’S FACTORY
In a shop in the middle of the garment district on an upper floor of a large dingy building, Nilda Rodriguez got her first sewing job. With no prior experience, Nilda was forced to rely on the generosity and patience of her coworkers to learn how to operate an industrial sewing machine. Her Ecuadorian boss and his wife also helped out. “Within the first few days, they knew I couldn’t sew,” recalled Nilda. “But the boss’s wife said, ‘Fine, I’ll teach you.’ In nonunion shops, they’ll teach you—it’s all piecework, so they’re not losing out. It’s your problem.”
While 80 percent of the industry functions on piece rates15—or payment per garment rather than by the hour—there seems to be no agreement among workers about its merits. Some operators argue that piecework allows them to work without the constant vigilance of their employers, so that they feel as if they work for themselves.16 Others say the nonstop pressure to keep up pace with faster workers, or just to make enough money, is oppressive. Employers seem to have no such disagreement: Piecework keeps the factory humming and the garments flying. Nilda sided with the workers who dislike the system. “Piecework is terrible,” she said. “It pits you against the other workers, puts you in competition. If the styles change, they just throw it at you and you have to figure it out yourself. It takes at least a day to do one garment the first time.”
The piecework system, with its attendant burdens for the worker, is not uncommon in other manufacturing jobs. More particular to the garment industry is the absence of a seniority system. In a highly seasonal industry, plagued with constant layoffs, veteran workers and newcomers alike share the skimpy or ample work load in union shops. The International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) has codified the arrangement in its collective agreements.17 Some critics suggest that by keeping all workers insecure, this policy inhibits the militancy that often arises from a more stable group of workers. But the work-sharing clause also eliminates the contractors’ prerogative to keep favorites supplied with work.
The garment factory has little room for personal advancement. While the most skilled women work for manufacturers or jobbers as sample makers—fashioning original samples of a design for display and often working closely with designers—over half of apparel workers are sewing machine operators. Once responsible for the assembly of an entire garment, operators increasingly do “section work,” repeating the same insert of a sleeve or closing the same seam on blouse after blouse. Other workers—called floor workers, trimmers, and general workers—turn out belts and collars on special machines, snip extra threads and look for irregularities, and hang up newly-pressed goods, slipping on the cellophane for shipping.
Within the narrow range of upward mobility in the factory is the opportunity to learn how to operate the newest machines. Nilda recalled that she insisted on learning the merrow machine, which binds seams with an automatic overstitch and allows operators to work rapidly. Other useful skills include knowing how to operate special buttonhole machines, which sew on buttons and perform various specialized functions. There is no tradition of automatic advancement in a sewing factory, however, no built-in increments or union-guaranteed training opportunities. Therefore, many women stay at one task all their working lives, afraid to insist on training, or unwilling in the short run to absorb the loss of time and pay that training would entail.
Rarely are women able to penetrate the domain of men’s work. Men are the cutters, cutting hundreds of layers of fabric at once into pattern pieces. The aristocrats of apparel workers, cutters are relatively highly paid and often work on the premises of the jobber, where the crucial cutting process can be strictly supervised. Men are also pressers, pressing seams and finished garments to prepare them for shipping. Some men do cross over as operators and floor workers, but women are not considered strong enough for the hot, heavy irons or the now-motorized cutting tools.18
When Nilda demanded training on new machines, it was no accident of character. She is a New York-born Puerto Rican, and that circumstance distinguished her from her coworkers. Because she could maneuver equally well in English and Spanish, she was often viewed with suspicion by her employers. “They were afraid of my knowing the minimum wage laws, regulations and of demanding these rights,” she said. But as far as her coworkers were concerned, Nilda said she fit right in. She described a warm and supportive atmosphere where women shared ideas, doubts, and family problems, and stood by each other with a sense of unity.
Nilda said the shop talk among the workers from all over Latin America was often stimulating.
We tend to think that workers don’t have anything to talk about. But they talked about everything and anything. Not just bullshit, but about their country’s politics, religion, student strikes, the situation in Nicaragua. We would exchange information about each other’s countries, and everyone would bring in their favorite native food for the others to taste. It was interesting to hear their views and to give them yours. You learn a lot.
As a novice, Nilda also found other workers generous about teaching her.
Whenever I got stuck, someone would stop for a second and show me the best way to do it. Of course, you have to show you’re a good worker, that you work as hard as they do. They’ll complain when people don’t work hard and the work piles up on them—that’s only fair. They’re only slightly competitive. It’s the boss who’s trying to make it competitive. But there’s always a little gossip.
More than for gossip, Nilda’s coworkers relied on the advice and sympathy of the others.
All the women had problems with their husbands and children and no one to help. It helped them to come into the shop and talk about it. We’d talk about how we viewed men, or children, women’s lib, everything. Many women said they would rather be at work than at home. If someone started crying, they would always get sympathy.
In the event of an accident, Nilda said, “The whole place stops. A woman got her finger caught in a buttonhole machine, and everyone stopped working while they got her some help. If that happens, though, it shows you’re a real pro, you go around showing everyone your scar.” The women also banded together to keep the bathroom facilities clean. “We always had to fight about toilet paper,” Nilda laughed.
Health hazards in a typical New York City garment shop go far beyond an unsanitary bathroom. Compared with factories in which high-hazard jobs expose workers to harmful chemicals and heavy machinery, a sewing factory, at first glance, appears benign. But under the frequently dusty, chaotic surface are a number of serious health and safety problems. According to the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, garment workers suffer from high levels of stress (aggravated particularly by piecework, low job security, and lack of child care), skin rashes and allergies caused by chemical cleaners and dyes, joint pain from repetitive manual tasks, eye strain from striped and printed fabrics and poor lighting, and circulatory problems as a result of constant sitting or standing.19
Most commonly, workers find their own ways of coping with discomfort. A woman will bring a cushion from home to sit on, wrap a cloth around the knee press to insulate her leg from the heat, and share tips with coworkers about how to assuage various aches and pains. There have been some instances of collective action when conditions reached crisis proportions. In one case, at least thirteen women staggered off the job, coughing and fainting, into their local union office. They had been suffering for over two weeks from the effects of high levels of carbon monoxide gas from a leaky boiler.20
The ILGWU openly acknowledged the serious cumulative effects of garment production on the health of its workers when it set up for the first time a Health and Safety Department in 1980. With a three-year grant from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), it proposed to research the health hazards of chemical fabric treatments, inadequate workplace design, noise, job stress, and other problems. In conjunction, some New York City locals began to survey conditions of factory buildings in an attempt to identify the worst of the old, decaying industrial housing throughout the city. Only the most cosmetic changes or the most essential reforms have been pressed for, however. Most shops operate on marginal cash flow, and their proprietors plead poverty when faced with demands for major repairs, while shop landlords are often elusive.
Only in recent times have occupational health and safety become items on the agenda of American workers. Child labor, on the other hand, is assumed to have been dealt with effectively decades ago. Few people, however, have been inside a contemporary sweatshop. While the children are not employees, they have not disappeared from the shops. After school hours, school-age children are on the premises waiting for their mothers; preschool and older children may be found playing in corners and even sorting buttons and doing occasional errands.21 “Some women sit their kids next to them at the machine,” said Nilda.
The presence of children in the sweatshops does not represent a return to the outmoded practice of child exploitation. Rather, it indicates the burden placed upon garment workers and their children in the absence of day-care facilities. Olga Velasco said, “The workers in my shop complain about it all the time.” When they can find a satisfactory arrangement, she said, “women often have to take their kids a long distance to the baby sitter before they go to work. Then, a good bit of their earnings goes to pay the sitter.”
Olga Diaz, manager of the Shirt and Leisurewear Joint Board of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU), said, “We should have day-care centers in every area.”
In centers, kids learn how to get along with each other. Instead, what happens is that workers have to depend on sitters. There’s a woman in my building in the Bronx who lives on welfare plus what she earns for taking care of four kids. The kids don’t get out of doors, and they aren’t learning anything. They’re actually being hurt. When their mothers come home from work, they are too tired to do anything for them.
AT HOME IN THE CITY
The lack of day care is perhaps one of the most stressful aspects of a garment worker’s life, both inside and outside the workplace. The pressure of the dual roles of wage earner and homemaker, compounded for some women by such additional insecurities as earning low wages, being undocumented, being on welfare, and perhaps being physically ill, leads a number of women to accept homework as a “solution.” Able to keep an eye on the children, fix meals, and work off-the-books while staying safely at home, women workers turn their homes into sewing factories.
Isabel Magriz is one of the growing number of garment workers who do their labor at home, though the practice has been against the law since the 1940s. Such workers receive no benefits, no extra compensation for overtime, nor are any payments made on their behalf into the Social Security fund. Further savings accrue to employers because homeworkers absorb overhead costs, including thread, electricity, and machine repairs. Nonetheless, Isabel prefers homework. “My apartment is more comfortable than the factory,” she said. “When my kidney ailment causes pain, I can take breaks and lie down for a while.”
Elsa Perez, a Dominican woman who works in her Brooklyn apartment so that she can care for her two chronically ill children, added, “It would be better to go to the factory, to get all the work done at once, but I have so much to do here. So I work in los ratitos, the little bits of time in between.”
It is in the very nature of the “underground” dilemma that few broad social institutions touch the lives of such garment workers. In the polyglot of cultures and nationalities that is New York City, immigrants tend to live in close-knit neighborhoods, among people from their own native country, and often from the same province or town. There they find an entire network of paisanos, or compatriots, to lead them to jobs, stores, travel agencies, and mutual aid societies.
Often those who came before are well established in their new communities as small business people and can serve the constant stream of new immigrants. Since the initial investment for a contract shop is small, and since a willing labor force is assured, local sewing factories run by the immigrants’ compatriots are common. Sometimes the native bond is reassuring to the workers: Old customs are respected, and tips on the new society are shared. In other cases, however, the closeness creates an obligation, monetary or moral, that keeps workers indebted and trapped.22
Among the many Central and South American immigrants, there is a strong dependency on the Catholic Church. Throughout the boroughs of New York City, local parishes have swelled in size and need as Dominicans, Salvadorans, Ecuadorians, Mexicans, and others have arrived here looking for work. Unable or unwilling to relate to the vast government social service bureaucracy, because of lack of language skills or legal status, most Hispanic immigrants turn to the church for guidance and concrete aid.
The church has responded to the need. For example, in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, the Transfiguration Church provides its entirely Spanish-speaking parishioners with immigration counseling services, employment and training programs, food, and shelter. The hard-working clergy, moreover, have respected the confidence entrusted in them: During the 1980 census, the officials of the Brooklyn Catholic diocese refused to cooperate with the government to count the undocumented population unless guarantees for amnesty and safety were granted. The latter were never made; and the results of the 1980 census were challenged in court for underrepresenting the New York City Hispanic population.23
Some community organizations are also beginning to open their eyes to the problems of local garment workers. In the Washington Heights area of northern Manhattan, a grass-roots health project formed a “Committee on Sweatshops” after their state senator found over 100 underground shops in the district. The committee sponsored a series of workshops, open to workers and officials alike, on the health, legal, and political issues raised by such workplaces, as well as on the possibilities for unionization.
The city government, from its distant perch, occasionally devotes its resources to examining the problems of the garment industry. At least once in each administration, a report is issued on industry problems. But the city’s interest is narrow. Well aware that the apparel industry is one of the few remaining employers in the manufacturing sector, city officials concern themselves with the problems of infrastructure—keeping the city attractive to jobbers by holding onto loft buildings with strict zoning regulations, improving the midtown traffic flow, and keeping theft in the district to a minimum. The world of the garment worker touches city policy only insofar as local politicians and government bureaucrats relate to the leadership of the well-regarded ILGWU.
If you ask a New York garment worker, especially an unrepresented worker, whether it is better to have a union or not, most will say it is better to have a union. “When you work in a shop with a union you get vacation with pay and you expect to make a little more money,” said Marie Noree, a Haitian press operator at a union shop in Manhattan. “Without a union you don’t have anything.”
“We have such low wages and no health benefits,” said Carmen Collado, one of twenty-three workers employed in a coat manufacturing shop in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. “We decided to get a union because everything is so expensive now . . . you can’t afford to go to the hospital.” With a union, the workers get vacation pay and holidays, modest health benefits, a little more in wages, and very modest pensions. Employers get labor peace, and the contractors among them get a more steady flow of work since the unions channel work to them.
It does not seem to be a bad tradeoff for a worker stuck in so blighted an industry. But if you talk to workers who are members of either of the two predominant labor organizations in the industry, the ILGWU or the ACTWU, they will soon tell you that it is not enough. Wilma Najarro, an ACTWU member, said,
I worked for five years in one shop making women’s blouses. It was a good job with wages of five dollars an hour, and I got along well with the boss. Then one day the floor lady fired me. She was jealous of the boss’s admiration for my work, I guess. The union business agent came and didn’t do anything to help me. He sided with the floor lady and didn’t even get me the vacation pay they owed me.
The unions do not function as strong advocates of workers’ rights, and union members frequently complain that in disputes “the union always takes the management’s side.”24 Such union policies are a result not of indifference or corruption, but of the unions’ historic position as partners in the industry.
Larger and more stable than any of the employers with whom they deal, the unions long ago took on the responsibility for imposing order upon a chaotic industry. As early as 1913, the ILGWU undertook time-and-motion studies of its members in order to set a uniform piece rate, and to help unionized firms increase productivity.25 In the same year, the union first sought a solution to the “organized anarchy and irresponsibility” of the contracting system in the coat and suit industry, proposing that all contractors be registered and that jobbers and manufacturers be forbidden to take on new contractors so long as their current contractors were not working full time. In the words of ILGWU official Gus Tyler, “The union realized that its central problem was not the determination of a wage level, not the setting of a proper work week, not fringe benefits, not grievance procedure—but the contracting system.”26
Both unions also have a long history of going the extra mile to get along with employers. Following the mass strike of 50,000 cloak makers in 1910, the ILGWU and employers agreed to a settlement proposed by attorney Louis Brandeis known as the Protocol of Peace. Under this agreement, the union won collective bargaining and the “preferential union shop” (which meant that union members got first crack at jobs), but surrendered the right to strike, allowing that all disputes would be settled through outside binding arbitration. Similar agreements were reached later in the men’s clothing industry, as Amalgamated president Sidney Hillman became one of labor’s foremost apostles of arbitration over more confrontational methods of settling problems.27
The ILGWU has been quite open about its practice of holding the line on wages. Echoing the union’s rationale for the policy, one observer has pointed out that “the rate of movement to other areas might have been even faster if the ILGWU had not sought in recent years to protect the job opportunities of its members in the older cities by modifying its wage demands.”28 This policy dates back to the 1950s. The bypassing of wage increases in that decade brought about a sharp relative decline in the wages of dressmakers; whereas their earnings in the late 1940s had been higher than those of auto and steel workers, in the 1950s they earned less than half of the wages of such workers. The ILGWU’s policy was also demonstrated in the union’s opposition to minimum wage laws in the 1960s.29 Given such a tradition, it is not surprising that in current times, when the nation’s industry is in trouble, the unions act to smooth over problems on the shop floor and to moderate wage demands in negotiations.
The unions’ record on political and social issues which directly affect their members is also mixed. As many as 30,000 of the ILGWU’s 109,000 New York area members are undocumented aliens.30 After years of sharing the anti-immigrant position of the AFL-CIO, ILGWU locals in New York and in Los Angeles began actively organizing the undocumented in the mid- 1970s. The union as a whole was forced to consider the issue of immigration, and for a time to act as advocate of undocumented workers’ rights, calling for unconditional amnesty for all workers who were residents of the country, and opposing sanctions against employers who hired them. Now it appears that the union has abandoned this advanced position under pressure from the AFL-CIO.
At the same time the organization is engaged in a highly visible union label campaign, attacking “cheap foreign labor” rather than the international system of oppression, and encouraging consumers to view the ILGWU label as “a little American flag in your clothes.” One of the most stridently anti-Communist native unions, the ILGWU has consistently supported United States military adventures in the Third World and has played a key role in the work of the CIA-funded American Institute for Free Labor Development. The effect of such a course has been organizationally suicidal, as many of the beneficiaries of the policy are also the sources of cheap apparel imports—kept cheap by the repressive antilabor policies of United States-backed regimes.
The ACTWU’s policies, although also contradictory, are less extreme. More apt to be critical of United States foreign policy (it was among the first AFL-CIO unions to oppose the Vietnam war) and of such right-wing governments as those in Chile and South Korea, it has been less outspoken on the issue of immigration. At its national convention in the summer of 1981, delegates approved a resolution calling for both an amnesty program for undocumented residents and legal penalties against employers who hire the undocumented.31
Possibly because of the paucity of female union leaders, neither union has emphasized “women’s issues” in organizing or legislative campaigns. Although the ILGWU’s membership is about 90 percent female, its leadership remains mostly male—there are only two women on its twenty-six member executive board. With a 66 percent female membership, and five women on its executive board of forty-four, ACTWU’s representation is only marginally more representative.32 Sexist hiring and promotion practices, pay discrimination, and sexual harassment are issues that have received considerable attention in recent clerical organizing attempts, but such concerns are given short shrift by the apparel unions.
The unions have placed slightly more emphasis on the women’s issue of need for child-care programs. Although it has no centers in New York, ACTWU has established seven child-care centers in Baltimore and Chicago and has pressed for government-funded centers operating twenty-four hours a day. The ILGWU’s efforts here have been less successful, with only one model program in Philadelphia.
But the unions’ greatest failure is their inability to come up with a remedy for the abuses of the underground sector. “They are losing ground all the time,” Yale Garber of the Apparel Manufacturers Association said of the ILGWU’s organizing efforts in New York.33 A long way from having the sort of base among Latino or Chinese immigrants that was gained among turn-of-the-century Jewish immigrants, the unions are prone to look for legal solutions rather than to put the required effort into organizing. To date, the only significant legal achievement has been successful lobbying for a New York State law that increases penalties for violations of the industrial homework statutes, that allows any interested party to obtain an injunction to shut down a law-breaking employer’s operation, and that mandates a state study of violations of minimum wage, child labor, and overtime pay laws, to be conducted with a garment industry advisory committee.34
The ILGWU is also lobbying on behalf of a New York State bill (much like existing legislation in California) which would require all garment manufacturers to be registered with the state and bonded. Such a statute would place upon the state the burden of identifying the often hard-to-find contractors and limit the companies’ ability to pack up and run away from wage-and-hour inspectors and union-organizing drives.35
Meanwhile, competition for the unorganized shops has sprung up. At least fifteen unions, including five AFL-CIO affiliates, have begun organizing the garment industry, along with the ILGWU and the ACTWU. Many of these groups have links to organized crime; their sole purposes are to block organizing efforts of legitimate unions and to rip off members’ dues and welfare money. Through the terms of sweetheart contracts—which stipulate low wage rates, few holidays, and few welfare or pension provisions, and which are rarely enforced—manufacturers are able to reduce costs 20 to 30 percent below the costs of legitimate, union-affiliated competitors.36 It is not unusual for union organizers and even workers to discover that a shop they are trying to organize already has a union contract, or to have a “gangster union” intervene at a boss’s request and foul up an election by filing unfair labor practice charges, delaying the vote until prounion momentum is broken. Said ACTWU organizer Nick Unger,
Nothing is clean and every victory requires more union staffing than these small shops seem to be worth. With a very diverse work force and the fractured life of a city without community, you might need to send ten people out on evening house calls in the process of organizing a shop of fifteen people. . . . But these immigrants, documented or undocumented, often do want to be organized. They are willing to hold meetings in their homes, and to stay out late to go to such meetings in spite of the city’s dangers. Many are very anxious to improve their lives.
One of the oldest forms of women’s work, garment making, survives as one of the world’s most labor-intensive and exploitative jobs. In the United States it has long been and continues to be work done by recent immigrants, since the pay is low and the tasks are tedious, and since employers look on it as the kind of work any woman can do. Every woman knows something about sewing, the reasoning goes, and can build upon training she has had since girlhood and the experience of work performed for family members.
Boundaries between family and home and the workplace are blurred in many ways for garment workers. Many workers supplement their shop earnings by taking work home; other employees work only at home, never inside a shop. When there is no baby sitter, workers bring children with them into the factory. And if the boss is looking to hire someone, one of the workers can usually suggest a relative or a friend who is looking for work.
Bosses and unions, though, are pretty clearly outside of the circle of family and community. The scramble for meager profits in the garment industry leaves little space for paternalistic relations between employer and employee in a sewing factory, even though the boss may be of the same nationality as a worker or live in the same neighborhood. The unions have taken on the role of distant managers of a chaotic system of production, and with officers and staff drawn primarily from ethnic groups represented in earlier waves of immigration, they involve themselves only sporadically in the noneconomic lives of their members.
The workers in one of the most traditional fields of women’s work are thus left to rely upon women’s traditional sources of support—family, religion, and a sisterhood of coworkers. In this regard, for the thousands of workers in this unglamorous part of the economy, the story continues much as it began.
1. Herbert P. Rickman and Lance I. Michaels, Interim Report of the Task Force on the Apparel Industry (New York: Office of the Mayor, 1978), 2.
2. United States Department of Labor, Wage Survey: Women’s and Misses’ Dresses, (Aug. 1977), 14–15; United States Department of Labor, Industry Wage Survey: Men’s and Boy’s Suits and Coats (Apr. 1979), 1, 36.
3. New York State Senator Franz Leichter, “The Return of the Sweatshop,” pt. 2, unpublished manuscript, Feb. 1981, 3.
4. Roy Helfgott, “Women’s and Children’s Apparel,” in Max Hall, ed., Made In New York: Case Studies in Metropolitan Manufacturing (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959), 21.
5. Rickman and Michaels, Interim Report, 2.
6. Helfgott, “Women’s and Children’s Apparel,” 86–87.
7. “Apparel’s Last Stand,” Business Week (May, 1979), 60, notes that workers make 50 cents an hour in Taiwan and 25 cents in Sri Lanka, the fastest growing source of apparel imports to the United States.
8. Ibid., 60.
9. Charles Brecher, Upgrading Blue Collar and Service Workers (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972), 17.
10. U.S. Dept. of Labor, Industry Wage Survey, table 2, 2; George Roniger and Gail Morris, Metropolitan New York: An Economic Perspective (First National City Bank, 1974), 20.
11. Helfgott, “Women’s and Children’s Apparel,” 33.
12. North American Congress on Latin America, “Capital’s Flight: The Apparel Industry Moves South,” NACLA’s Latin American and Empire Report, 11 (Mar. 1977), 5. Harold Wool’s The Labor Supply for Lower Level Occupations (New York: Praeger, 1976), 279, cites a much lower figure: $3,000, which he says is one-ninth the corresponding ratio for all manufacturing in 1973.
13. U.S. Dept. of Labor, 2, Industry Wage Survey, text table 3.
14. One study concluded that in 1979 citizen or legal resident working women with children could make 95 cents an hour more on welfare (counting taxes that would not have to be paid) than working in an apparel shop. See Amerigo Badillo-Veiga, Josh DeWind, and Julia Preston, “Undocumented Immigrant Workers in New York City,” NACLA Report of the Americas, 13 (Nov.-Dec., 1979), 38.
15. NACLA, “Capital’s Flight,” 8.
16. Interview with garment worker, member of Local 23–25, ILGWU, 1979.
17. Collective agreement between the New York Skirt and Sportswear Association, Inc., The International Ladies Garment Workers Union, Local 23–25 and Local 10, 1979–82, Article 27.
18. Interview with Jerry Himmel, Business Agent, Local 23–25, ILGWU, 1980.
19. The New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, unpublished survey, New York City, 1979.
20. Incident took place in spring 1980, Local 23–25, ILGWU, New York City.
21. Personal visit to Mary Fran Dress Shop, 830 Westchester Avenue, Bronx, New York; interview with ILGWU organizer, Louis Bertot.
22. Roger Waldinger, “Labor Migration and Labor Market Structure: A Case Study of Undocumented Workers in the New York Garment Industry,” unpublished manuscript, Harvard University, Department of Sociology, 1979, 23–25.
23. New York Times, Dec. 6, 1979.
24. For further examples of this sentiment see Carol Smith, “Immigrant Women, Work and the Use of Government Benefits: A Case Study in New York’s Garment Industry,” unpublished manuscript, Adelphi School of Social Welfare, March 1980, 91; Badillo-Veiga et al., “Undocumented Immigrant Workers,” 26.
25. NACLA, “Capital’s Flight,” 19.
26. Gus Tyler, “Pattern of Garments,” unpublished and undated article, ILGWU education department, 7–8.
27. An account of the forging of the Protocol and of the rank-and-file reassertion of the strike weapon may be found in James R. Green, The World of the Worker: Labor in the Twentieth Century (New York: Hill and Wang, 1980), 73–77. On Hillman and and the ACWA see Matthew Josephson, Sidney Hillman: Statesman of American Labor (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1952), 59–85.
28. Helfgott, “Women’s and Children’s Apparel,” 88.
29. Michael Myerson, “The ILGWU: A Union That Fights for Lower Wages,” Ramparts (1971), 51–53. Helfgott, “Women’s and Children’s Apparel,” 88.
30. Figures on current ILGWU membership in Women’s Wear Daily, Nov. 20, 1981; percentage of undocumented among ILGWU membership in Rinker Buck, “The New Sweatshops: A Penny For Your Collar,” New York Magazine (Jan. 1979), 44.
31. Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, “Resolution of Civil Liberties,” unpublished document, ACTWU public relations department, 1981.
32. New York Times, Nov. 29, 1981, 56; ACTWU, Report of the General Executive Board (June 1981), 9.
33. Quoted in Women’s Wear Daily, Nov. 20, 1981.
34. ILGWU Justice, Aug. 1981, 1–2.
35. Women’s Wear Daily, Mar. 5, 1981, 11.
36. Women’s Wear Daily, Nov. 16 and 17, 1981.