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Sweatshop Warriors: Immigrant Women Workers Take on the Global Factory

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Sweatshop Warriors is a hopeful defense against dark visions of labor's future; it lights hope. Louie has written a clear and compelling book that details the working conditions and union-organizing struggles among Chinese, Chicana, Mexican, Korean, Thai and other women in the US garment, food service and other industries.

Miriam Ching Yoon Louie

Reviewed by Joe Lockard

Saturday, February 9 2002, 6:26 PM

Jack London's The Iron Heel, first published in 1907, advances a predictive vision of globalization. In the emergent global order, London writes, "The capture of the world-market by the United States had disrupted the rest of the world. Institutions and governments were everywhere crashing or transforming." In this too-little-read dystopian novel, a small set of oligarchies spread their control over the continents and push the working classes into near-slavery or slavery outright in order to maintain their palatial cities. "With iron hand and iron heel, [the Oligarchy] mastered the surging millions, out of confusion brought order, out of the very chaos wrought its own foundation and structure."

On a dark day of political news, we almost see a misty realization of this order. US-style capitalism and multinational corporations appear ever-triumphant; wages spiral downwards as national labor forces compete in a 'race to the bottom'; and independence disappears beneath the coercive powers of the IMF, GATT and other anti-democratic international bodies and agreements that demand privileges for capital over local social needs.

As ever, people of color are at the bottom of the labor heap. They are the old-new People of the Abyss, which London failed to realize from within his well-known blinders of racism and masculinism.

Gender and race are targets no less today than in the early twentieth century. It is trite inaccuracy to say 'Women hold up half the sky.' They hold up far, far more. As Sweatshop Warriors informs us, women of color hold up a larger and larger share of the global economy. Women's labor gets squeezed most as the processes of globalization keep squeezing labor in order to raise profit margins and return on capital.

Sweatshop Warriors is a hopeful defense against dark visions of labor's future; it lights hope. Louie has written a clear and compelling book that details the working conditions and union-organizing struggles among Chinese, Chicana, Mexican, Korean, Thai and other women in the US garment, food service and other industries. Too often labor histories do no more than provide an assembly of stories and read like good-intentioned Studs Terkel rip-offs. Sweatshop Warriors has an excellent command of its documentary evidence; it provides well-synthesized and historically-situated analyses.

Thirty years ago the apparel manufacture industry in the United States was contracting rapidly into a black hole of early globalization. At the time the US left focused its attention on issues of domestic racism and sexism, without paying the slightest attention to what 'mainstream' labor unionists were howling over about entire industries heading overseas. Those 'Buy American' tags attached to sweaters read to many leftists as heavily suspicious manifestations of economic nationalism, one that deprived Third World labor of access to the US consumer market.

In the ensuing shakeout, entire divisions of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union -- the Cloakmakers and Knit Goods Workers, for example -- disappeared in administrative consolidations as industries evaporated. Take-home work had disappeared decades before in vicious union campaigns, where men loading station wagons with piecework for non-union basement operations were likely to have their gas tanks set alight. In the 1970s these exploitative take-home operators began operating openly again. Sweatshops, which had never entirely disappeared from the garment industry, began to make a comeback.

Third World labor conditions arrived in the remnant US garment industry, particularly that part of it located in southern California. New York and California shop floors filled with new waves of Asian and Latina workers; the unions were losing strength; and conditions were ripe for a surge in exploitation.

But if 'just in time' production was arriving in factories, so too was just-in-time unionization. Ethnic and immigrant communities, as so frequently in American history, contributed their dynamism to labor organizing. The Hispanic and Asian communities have been heavily responsible for the re-awakening strength of unions in the United States.

What they brought too, as Louie argues, is a new sense of interconnection with the global economy. Union organizing in the Korean community in Los Angeles, for example, is cognizant of the labor struggles in South Korea and some union members have participated in union-organizing in two countries. Sweatshop Warriors does an especially good job linking together diverse labor organizing struggles throughout Asia and North America. Personal narratives spread throughout the book bring a sense of individual participation in the labor movement.

Louie does not do as good a job explicating intra-labor differences that have created divisions within and between union organizations. For instance, the now-merged Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union which led the Farrah strike of the early 1970s had a falling-out with Fuerza Unida, the independent Texas-based labor-organizing group best known for the Levi's boycott. Other than that there was a difference of opinion between two labor camps in relation to Levi Strauss, no real explanation appears for this split.

Louie's grassroots focus on smaller activist organizations has the advantage of bringing their work to the forefront, but it also obscures the work of larger unions like the ILGWU that have worked heavily to organize within and across ethnic communities. Details-be-damned militancy does enormous harm to labor organizing that devotes itself to creating institutions that work for workers. So I frowned when reading that the AFL-CIO, which has achieved new and welcome vigor under John Sweeney, deserves broad-brush condemnation as part of the labor movement's "degeneration into profit-making institutions investing and managing workers' pensions, benefit funds, and fixed assets". Degeneration? Union officers who fail to pay scrupulous attention to pensions, benefit funds and assets are scum, worse than the thieves in suits who infest corporate elites. Tight institutional controls and good accountants have their place in the labor movement, in case anyone has forgotten the Teamsters Central States pension fund.

If Sweatshop Warriors misses on such points, it does not miss on spirit or voice. This book covers diverse struggles and groups, like the Asian Immigrant Women Advocates and their support for hotel workers in the Bay area; the Korean Immigrant Worker Advocates in southern California and their organizing among low-wage Korean and Latino/a workers; and La Mujer Obrera, which has been dealing with the effects of NAFTA among El Paso workers. Collectively, such groups represent a portrait of labor organizing in a time of globalization.

It is striking today how frequently the metaphor of slave labor occurs, how often the vocabularies of coerced labor and slavery emerge, and how a history reasserts itself insidiously. This concerns not simply workers like those Thais freed from the El Monte sweatshop in 1995, one of the most blatant recent cases of slavery in the United States. Rather, neo-slavery is a percolating sense of common fate among minimum and sub-minimum-wage workers who understand their shared condition of life at the edge, whatever their origin or current workplace location. Speaking of Southeast Asian workers flooding into Korea, one Korean immigrant to the US says "I think their situation is very similar to what immigrants face here in the US. I feel my situation here is very similar to those workers who are coming, almost like slave labor to Korea." Near-slavery, endless work for negligible pay, joins immigrants on the far sides of the Pacific.

We feel the nearness of the Abyss.

Sweatshop Warriors is available from South End Press  

Copyright © 2002 by Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.

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