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Manufacturing’s race to the bottom

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.

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