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Manufacturing's race to the bottom

Consumer demand has forced Northwest companies like REI and Nike to off-shore their manufacturing processes. The result: poor working conditions and unnecessary deaths.
Blaine O'Neill

Blaine O'Neill

Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney want to bring back American manufacturing jobs. Neither has much reassuring detail about how he plans to do that. And both are talking about high-end jobs, not the kind of jobs, once held by new immigrants and migrants from rural areas, that had been outsourced to the people who burned to death in Karachi, Pakistan's Ali Enterprises last month, when at least 289 workers died behind locked doors in a garment factory.

It was a re-run of New York's tragic 1911 Triangle fire. At Triangle, 146 people, most of them young women from Jewish and Italian immigrant families, died when a fire broke out in a pile of cloth scraps. People on the streets saw workers leaping from ninth-floor windows to avoid the flames, knowing they would die on the pavement below. Many more might have gotten out unharmed, but management had locked an exit door.

People had known how to build safer factories for nearly a century, writes David von Drehle in Triangle: the fire that changed America. Overhead sprinklers and a bunch of other safety features were available, but garment factories didn't commonly use them.

More than a hundred years later, not much has changed. The blaze at Ali Enterprises may have been caused by faulty wiring. There, too, workers leapt from high windows to avoid the flames. There, too, many would have survived had potential exit doors not been locked or blockaded by stacks of finished goods.

You could probably walk across a college campus, to say nothing of a shopping mall, and not find one person in ten who could identify the Triangle fire. Labor history doesn't impinge much on American consciousness. And it is being expunged. In Manhattan, some people want to rename the Garment District, the area between 42nd and 35th streets and 7th and 9th avenues, where much of American women's clothing was produced in the days before financial services became New York's leading industry.

"The real action . . . was on the side streets, populated by the myriad businesses needed to produce a garment, making everything from fabric to pins and needles," wrote Jean Appleton — daughter of David Dubinsky, who led the International Ladies Garment Workers Union from 1932 to 1966 — in an August New York Times op ed.

In the buildings that lined those streets, she wrote, "machines and people worked day and night filling the orders left by buyers from across the country. I remember pushing my way through the hundreds of master cutters and patternmakers who crowded the sidewalk along 38th Street at lunchtime, dodging the hand trucks carrying stylish garments. . . . Every one recognized the garment district not just as a geographic designation, but also as a living entity. . . . When John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, he made sure to stop by the garment district, where he addressed tens of thousands of union workers along 38th Street, with stars like Tallulah Bankhead and Janet Leigh beside him on the podium."

Now, all that is gone, and some local business promoters think it's time to move on. "We should remember the rich history of this neighborhood, but we must look forward as well, and work to ensure that our future is as vibrant as our past," wrote Barbara Blair Randall, president of the Fashion Center Business Improvement District, in a letter about Appleton's op ed. "That is why we have begun seeking proposals for a campaign to market the district to prospective tenants, who will play a major role in its continuing growth."

Whatever you may think of the modern American labor movement, the fact remains that without unions, people in low-paid manufacturing jobs have no way to push for better conditions, no way to stand up for their basic human dignity. And employers know it.

In early September, The New York Times ran a long piece about a labor organizer in Bangladesh — which now produces more garments than any country except China. — who wound up tortured and killed. It seemed likely, but not certain, that he had been killed for his efforts to organize garment workers. "His tiny office was lost among the hulking garment factories that churn out cargo pants or polo shirts for brands like Gap or Tommy Hilfiger," wrote the Times' Jim Yardley, "yet workers managed to find Aminul Islam. . . . Unpaid wages. Abusive bosses. Mr. Islam, a labor organizer, fought for their rights. Security forces found Mr. Islam, too. . . .More than once, he was told his advocacy for workers was hurting a country where garment exports drive the domestic economy."

Right. The garment industry has always chased cheap labor. A century ago, American women's garment shops, centered in New York, employed Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe and Italians from southern Italy. Representatives of those ethnic groups still led the garment unions years later when internal migrants, African Americans from the South and Puerto Ricans, manned the sewing machines.

Then some garment companies, eager to escape union contracts in the north, moved operations to the largely rural and anti-union south. After immigration laws changed in the 1960s, more of them started employing Chinese immigrants, many of them illegals who wouldn't tip the authorities off about unsafe working conditions. In the West, the industry's work force became largely Hispanic.

Then cheap air freight and improved communications made it possible to take the next logical leap: Instead of employing new immigrants, manufacturers could get the work done by real foreigners. Forget even low-end American wages. Forget America's occupational health and safety laws. When push came to shove, all consumers really cared about was price.

THAW, REI's former manufacturing subsidiary, closed in 2000, the year after the WTO demonstrations. THAW employed hundreds of people, many of them immigrants, making fleece clothing. REI surveyed its members repeatedly. Overwhelmingly, they said they wanted goods made in America. Overwhelmingly, they said they weren't willing to pay more than a few extra cents on the dollar to get them. American goods were less important than third-world prices. NAFTA had made it easier to source goods in Mexico. So THAW closed its doors.

In the 1980s, Seattle became the hub of the American men's sportswear industry. Very few garments were actually made in the Pacific Northwest. Virtually all were designed in and marketed from Seattle but "sourced" overseas — mainly, but not exclusively, in east Asia.

Oregon-based Nike has, of course, been sending its production overseas for decades. In the 1990s, the company drew a lot of criticism for relying on Asian sweatshop labor. It has tried to clean up its image and its act, joining a number of American and European clothing companies in a consortium that pays third parties to inspect overseas factories to make sure they meet worker health and safety standards.

During the 1999 Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization, various people pointed out the irony of anti-globalization demonstrators clad in Asian-made athletic shoes. Of course the demonstrators were wearing shoes made abroad. Even then, it was virtually impossible to find athletic shoes made in the U.S.A.

Could anyone have stopped garment manufacturing's offshore "race to the bottom?" Who knows? No later than the early 1970s, my father — who had spent most of his life working for locals of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union — criticized union leaders for failing to recognize that outsourcing dwarfed all their other problems and issues. At that early stage, when the union still represented half a million American workers, political pressure might have made some kind of difference. Once outsourcing gained momentum though, there was no going back.

And it certainly did gain momentum. The ILGWU melted away like Arctic sea ice. In 1995, it merged with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union to form UNITE. Nine years later, UNITE merged with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees. The old ILGWU was nowhere to be found. The old system of unionized American garment shops was a thing of the past, too.

Karl Marx famously wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte that great historical figures and facts repeat themselves, "the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce." If Triangle was the tragedy, Ali Enterprises should have been the farce. The only thing farcical about the fire, though, was the pretense that American and European companies — and American and European consumers — who bought the clothes produced in that and other Third World factories cared as much about worker health and safety as they did about price. Not that it's easy to get a handle on working conditions in such places. Some manufacturers do have third-party organizations inspect and certify the conditions in overseas suppliers.

In fact, Declan Walsh and Steven Greenhouse reported in The New York Times, "[a] prominent factory monitoring group heavily financed by industry gave a clean bill of health" to Ali Enterprises just weeks before the fire. As Walsh and Greenhouse wrote, this pointed up the problem of relying on people you don't know to certify conditions in plants you don't see.

"The two inspectors [who gave the factory a clean bill of health] were working on behalf of Social Accountability International, a nonprofit monitoring group based in New York that obtains much of its financing from corporations and relies on 21 affiliates around the world to do most of its inspections," they explained. Not surprisingly, "[t]he Karachi tragedy is a huge embarrassment to the factory monitoring system, in which many Western garment and electronics companies rely on auditing groups to provide a coveted seal of approval to their low-cost suppliers in the developing world."

Some one certainly should be embarassed. But the inspectors may not have known that management would stuff 1,000 workers into a plant registered for 250. And — probably never having read about Triangle — they presumably did not know that management would lock the doors.

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Nov 1, 10:53 a.m. Inappropriate

DJ's article aptly illustrates the basics of macroeconomics on a global scale. Even in communist China, elements of individuality and capitalism are alive and well, along with the good, the bad, and the ugly.

However, there are notable exceptions that keep showing promise, right here in the USA, even within at least one of the industries cited in the article. Cascade Designs, which makes a quite a few lines of outdoor gear (MSR stoves, snowshoes, etc., etc.), are making most of their products right here in the USA, many in little old SODO. They run pretty lean, and I suspect, don't have a bunch of union members. However, they remained in business through the Great Recession.

I would suggest an article, with a tour of CD, that may act as a spark of inspiration to others.

By the way, I don't have any interest in CD nor have I bought one of their products in many years.

siderod

Posted Thu, Nov 1, 11:51 a.m. Inappropriate

When the Nike controversy first came to the forefront, Phil Knight made the defense that most believers in the globalist system make. He argued that overseas Nike jobs, though poor by the standards that most Americans expect, were much better that most jobs that people in Eastern Asian countries had available. Hence the huge number of applications to work in those factories.

The ultimate promise of globalization has always been that it will equalize living conditions around the world, not by dragging down the wealthy countries, but by lifting everyone else up. Germany, Italy, Japan, and the US were all once the low cost manufacturers of the world. Nowadays were are seeing a lifting of people out of poverty that dwarfs anything that has come before, led primarily by China and other emerging manufacturing powerhouses. For these reasons, whatever the excesses may be, I would not entertain any movement to try to turn the clock back on globalization. I would also be wary of things that sounds like protectionism, even a sort of soft protectionism in the form of a Buy American movement.

Like most Americans, I am willing to pay a premium, but only a modest premium, for social responsibility. I have my own budget to manage. Likewise, business leaders respond to public opinion and have their own consciences, and so they will take their own actions for social responsibility, but again only modest actions because they are subject to the severe economic forces. If one wants to look for a target to affix blame for poor third world working conditions, it would be the governments of those countries. Just as the US government ultimately had to take the lead in improving factory conditions, so will it be the governments of India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and China who need to step up to taking care of the needs of their own citizens.

Posted Fri, Nov 2, 9:47 a.m. Inappropriate

This has got to be one of the most uninformed, or disingenuous, responses in a comment thread I have read on Crosscut yet. These governments are mostly in hock to the World Bank and the IMF, which are shoving "austerity" down their throats, and forcing them to dismantle or privatize government services wholesale.

Guess what's the first to go? Worker protection, wages hours, and working conditions enforcement -- if any exists at all -- and health and safety regulations, because they don't "pencil out." People die, as Dan has pointed out. But you can't be bothered to pay any more than your "modest premium" for social responsibility. Pathetic.

ivan

Posted Fri, Nov 2, 9:10 a.m. Inappropriate

Excellent article. One US company that is at least trying is American Apparel, as discussed here:

http://www.theatlanticwire.com/technology/2012/06/what-american-apparel-can-teach-google-about-making-nexus-q-us/54018/

On Tuesday night I listened to Juliet Schor on KUOW's "Alternative Radio" say that the average American buys an item of clothing EVERY FIVE DAYS--a staggering thought when you stop to think about the conditions in which most clothing--and consumer goods, for that matter--are made. Schor is a professor of sociology at Boston college and has written many books about business as usual capitalism. My take home from this talk, and from Mr. Chasan's article, is that it makes more sense to shop less, but shop more wisely.

Knowing that, like most Americans, I have too much stuff and my stuff oppresses me, naturally motivates me to shop less for "stuff" and spend some of the savings on my volunteer projects. Also, knowing that American Apparel makes most of its products in the US makes me want to shop there instead of at Walmart. Knowing that Google makes the Nexus 7 in the US (albeit from foreign parts) makes me want to buy a Nexus 7 instead of the Apple iPad Mini. Similar choices could be made as well.

Mr. Chasan's thought-provoking article pairs well with this must-see video called "The Story of Stuff," by Annie Leonard:

http://www.storyofstuff.org/movies-all/story-of-stuff/

Mud Baby

Posted Fri, Nov 2, 8:12 p.m. Inappropriate

Have been shopping REI since I wandered around the warehouse on Capitol Hill with my Dad in the 70's and must say the quality of the current REI brand is nothing short of horrible. The last 4 things we bought from the Novara line fell apart almost immediately. The materials were good, the design was good and the sewing was the Achilles heal of every item. To cheapen one's brand to the point of uselessness is not economically sound. The may be selling more cheap stuff, but I won't be buying anymore cheap stuff. I can't afford it.

HJT

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