Tuesday, September 19, 2006

American Apparel Re-examined

I happened upon this three-article reaming of American Apparel in the indie press the other day… It starts off with a pretty strident tone but mostly backs it up with facts. I’m not saying I agree with every point but it’s certainly interesting reading.

the third article mentions another company, No Sweat Apparel,
whose products *are* union-made, and come with charts that show you the cost of rice and vision care charted against the wages of the worker.

Some highlights:

‘Postmodern Paternalism’
Not only is the company’s clothing “Made in Downtown L.A.” as the billboard says, but the predominantly immigrant workforce of thousands earns $12 an hour on average, according to American Apparel. In an industry that is shifting production to places where workers earn well under a dollar an hour, at a time when 97 percent of apparel sold in the U.S. is made in other countries, Charney’s company stands the business model on its head. Indeed, with perks ranging from a health care plan to English classes to free massages, as well as its “one big family” élan and charismatic patron, American Apparel’s factory (now the largest sewn-garments facility remaining in the United States) hearkens back to a bygone, paternalistic era of textile manufacture in the United States.
Ever since a general strike of textile workers in 1934, employers in garment factories have been at such pains to keep their workers from forming unions that they would create a family-like, miniature welfare state, providing employees housing or Christmas dinners and, in more recent times, sports leagues or night classes. This old-school management emphasizes workers’ status as the children in a family with the employer as a benevolent father figure who provides a good life but expects obedience. The idea was that spending money – on more-than-minimum wages and parties and classes for workers – in order to make much more money, would be far cheaper than the costs that would accrue if the workers were to organize and make their own gains through collective bargaining. If workers in these paternalistic enterprises did attempt to organize, however, the carrot of good benefits could quickly be swapped with with the stick of real employer power. Indeed, workers attempting to unionize in textile plants usually face harassment, intimidation, firings, threats to close the plant, and all manner of manipulation or creation of division among and between workers and their organization.

According to signed affidavits in an unfair-labor-practices charge filed by the union and settled by American Apparel, the company’s management campaign included surveillance of employees, captive-audience anti-union meetings, interrogation of workers about their support for the union, and a campaign of misleading information and intimidation. But the true blow came when workers were made to attend, on paid time, an anti-union rally that management staged for reporters in the building’s parking lot. Charney, however, saw the beauty of workers’ self-organization in the scene: “Workers organized other workers to write letters to the union, sign a petition and demonstrate against the union in front of our building,” Charney wrote in a letter to the Nation magazine in September 2004.

Those quotes are all from the first article. Go on, it’s good reading.

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