by Carl Proper
“What do you do [to] make a really big difference for these women, and save lives?” CNN commentator Erin Burnett asked her viewers. “Unions. Yes, unions.”
Remarkably, this mainstream newsperson called on air for unionizing an industry – in this case, the Bangladeshi garment industry, where one hundred mostly female workers perished in last weekend’s fire at a factory producing apparel for Walmart and other U.S. retailers and manufacturers.
To buttress her case, Burnett referred to the similar tragedy 101 years ago at the Triangle Shirtwaist company in New York City , in which 146 garment workers perished in a factory fire lacking every available fire safety protection. She noted that:
“The New York City fire helped spur the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, which fought for better working conditions for sweatshop workers. And we have every hope that the very sad events of this weekend can do the same for Bangladesh… What do you do? Unions. Yes, unions…They could make a really big difference for these women, and save lives.”
Of course, Burnett was right. If workers do not organize to defend their own interests, and if better-placed people of good will – like Burnett — do not support workers’ causes at a political level, there is no answer. The early members of the ILGWU, and many other unions, fought that fight long ago, and won against employers who no doubt looked as powerful as any today.
How did they do it? What were the common elements between the industry of that day, and in our day; and in the struggle of “wealth creators” of all generations — who too often die of powerlessness — to gain a degree of control over their lives?
A fundamental commonality in the garment industry is the division into a relatively few and powerful corporations who design and sell the products, and set the working conditions; and the thousands of small, relatively powerless production contractors who directly employ the workers making the clothes.
As early as 1900, labor historian and economist John R. Commons described for the U.S. Industrial Commission the circumstances that plague millions of workers in 2012, in the U.S. and abroad, just as they affected employees in a variety of industries at the turn of the 20th century:
“When work comes to the contractor from the manufacturer and is offered to his employees for a smaller price than has been previously paid, the help will remonstrate and ask to be paid the full price. Then the contractor tells them, “I have nothing to do with the price. The price is made for me by the manufacturer.” That is, he cuts himself completely loose from any responsibility to his employees as to how much they should get for their labor . . . . The help do not know the manufacturer . . . . However much the price for labor goes down there is no one responsible.”i
Substitute for “the manufacturer” in this quotation the words “Walmart”, “Tommy Hilfiger”, or the like, and the story is the same – but with one key difference. In the U.S. garment industry in the early 20th century, both the controlling businesses – the manufacturers — and the contractors were concentrated in New York and a few other Eastern cities. Today, the two sides of the business, and the employees of each, are separated by borders and oceans.
In the early decades of the twentieth century, the ILGWU won massive strikes and key support from liberal allies like future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, future Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, and New York Governor, then President Franklin Roosevelt. In the 1930s, they ended the practice of union manufacturers denying responsibility for the contractor employees who made their clothes. They negotiated collective bargaining agreements with BOTH sides of the business. They required union manufacturers to use only union contractors, and union contractors to work only for union jobbers – and organized the majority of workers on both sides. The success of this mutual responsibility system in pushing sweatshops to the outer margins of the industry was so obvious that even conservative Republicans — including Senators from Robert Taft to Barry Goldwater, and then-junior Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia — eventually endorsed and enforced the union’s exceptional “secondary boycott” protection. It worked, as nothing else could.
Could it also work today, and in other industries as well? Could U.S. workers pressure Walmart, for example, to guarantee fair wages and conditions for workers at its overseas contractors? Could Walmart’s indirect employees in Bangladesh or elsewhere coordinate with U.S. unions, and political allies in both countries, to assure enforcement of fair labor standards? What role could Walmart’s direct employees in China’s many Walmart stores, play? Certainly, these are conversations that should take place (and perhaps they are).
Over the same long weekend as the Bangladesh fire, and the nationwide demonstrations there, U.S. workers in hundreds of locations, also acted in nationwide concert to challenge the Walmart dictatorship. It was a courageous and key step toward a fairer world. But as these U.S. workers well understand, they need all the solidarity they can get – just as the garment employees around the time of the Triangle fire needed solidarity in their day.
By standing up where they are, Walmart’s militant indirect employees in Bangladesh, and other countries around the world, also strengthen American workers’ hand in dealing with the same employer. U.S. workers’ actions similarly open up paths to cooperation against the common adversary.
Each union, and workers in each country, will have to work out its own path to solidarity and victory, but to stand on equal footing with our employers, unions must cross geographic barriers employers crossed long ago.
And as workers seek new paths today, who better to learn from than garment workers of an earlier day? Those immigrant women and men, speaking numerous different languages, broke through a previously impregnable barrier to hold the real powers in the industry — the manufacturers (since then updated to include retailer-jobbers like Walmart) — responsible, by contract and under law, for the employment conditions they fostered. Through massive strikes and struggle, they established a principle of manufacturer responsibility for decent conditions for ALL employees, direct or indirect. That principle was once widely implemented and accepted, but the ILGWU’s power was lost when we failed to follow the work across national borders. The principle largely disappeared with the union, though unions like UNITE HERE are working to rebuild it today.
The confluence of events over the past weekend must be recognized, and consciously continued as a step toward global worker power.
i Report by the U.S. Industrial Commission,” Volume XV, 1901; as cited in “Out of the Sweatshop,” by Leon Stein, New York Times Book
Carl Proper was a working member, then staff member of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, then UNITE, then UNITE HERE from 1972-2011. He is now retired.