This campaign is a deadly trap for working people. Rather than placing our union and its membership in on a fighting, class-struggle course, this campaign portrays workers in other countries as our competitors in the world market and hapless victims of cruel corporations.
Rather than bringing the power of our union to bear to join together with the real struggles of garment and textile workers around the world against a common enemy—U.S. imperialism and the capitalist system as a whole—it ties our union together with the corporations and their government in Washington in a protectionist, "buy American" campaign. And rather than recognizing the fighting capacities and revolutionary potential of working people both here in the United States and internationally, the anti-sweatshop campaign does nothing to back or develop a struggle against the garment and textile bosses anywhere.
The UNITE officials' campaign enshrouds U.S. nationalism with a pro-worker and human rights veneer, all the while feeding the fear of loss of jobs in this country. It ultimately bolsters the America First political line of ultrarightists such as Patrick Buchanan, who is posturing as a champion of "American" workers who are "forced to compete with sweatshop labor abroad," which he—together with the UNITE officialdom—blames on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the WTO.
For some years, UNITE officials have distributed literature and held occasional street rallies decrying the working conditions and wages of textile and garment workers in semicolonial countries, as well as China. Several rallies have been held against sweatshops in the United States as well. But even in those cases, the rallies have not been tied to struggles.
The summer/fall 1999 issue of Unite for Justice, a newsletter published by the Chicago and Central States Joint Board of UNITE, is typical. It appeals to union members to urge cities to adopt "No Sweat Procurement Ordinances" against buying "sweatshop-made" uniforms. Members are also urged to write congressmen asking support for the Wool Tariff Bill, to protect "our industry" from "a loophole in the NAFTA treaty and the Canadian-U.S. agreement [that] allows Canadian makers of men's suits to pay no duty on finished wool suits they export to the U.S. At the same time, U.S. producers must pay a 30 percent tariff on the wool they import."
The UNITE officialdom appeals to university students and radicalizing youth to join in this anti-sweatshop campaign. A meeting of 100 was recently held at a college campus in DeKalb, Illinois, for example.
The Unite for Justice newsletter reports that a leader of Students Against Sweatshops told the UNITE convention of "student-led campaigns to stop schools from buying university-licensed clothing from companies that use child labor, underpay their workers, illegally prohibit unions, and subject their employees to unhealthy and dangerous working conditions."
In other words, buy from UNITE-organized companies in the U.S.A.
The campaign promotes protectionism, in a situation where Washington already uses its dominance in the world to impose 3,000 tariffs on clothing and textile imports brought into the United States.
I viewed a video used in the campaign, produced in 1995 by the National Labor Committee, called Zoned for Slavery: the Child Behind the Label." The video back cover encasing the video calls calls on U.S. companies "to prohibit forced overtime by offshore contractors, to guarantee the right of young workers to attend night school... and to commit themselves to working with independent local human rights organizations to monitor their contractors' compliance."
This video asserts that the low wages of garment workers in Central America are a threat to U.S. workers' job security, and interviews a few textile workers in this country expressing that view, against a backdrop of scenes of abusive working conditions in Honduras and interviews with garment workers in Honduras, El Salvador, and elsewhere in Central America. The bosses at the particular factory in Honduras spotlighted in the video are pointedly noted as being South Korean, adding to the U.S. nationalist tone of the video as well.
Garment and textile workers in the United States have every reason to extend solidarity to all struggles in other countries against the indignities and brutality of capitalism. The working class in the United States has special obligations in this regard, given Washington's dominance in the international capitalist system. Not to "save" our fellow workers in Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia, and Africa as an act of charity, but to fight alongside them as equals as they organize to win unions and other gains in the face of conditions of economic depression in their countries. One of many examples of struggles is the strike earlier this year of 600 workers who are members of the newly formed Glove Workers Union in Indonesia. They are fighters, not victims, helping to establish union and democratic rights in Indonesia.
One way to join with our fellow workers is to champion the demand to cancel the Third World debt, which is used by the imperialist rulers to extract billions of dollars of wealth from the semicolonial world.
Working people in this country also need to oppose the U.S. government's membership in the WTO, which is one of the avenues through which it organizes to extend and deepen the exploitation and oppression of working people in other countries, including the workers state in China. But the UNITE officialdom has joined hand-in-hand with the U.S. textile bosses in being among the most virulent opponents of Beijing's ability to seek normal trade relations, including by joining the WTO. Working people here should support China's right to join the WTO.
Most important, by standing shoulder to shoulder with workers and farmers around the world, U.S. garment and textile workers strengthen our fighting capacity as part of the broader working-class resistance that has begun to grow here in the United States in response to the employers' attacks on our unions, living standards, and democratic rights. The recent union-organizing victory of textile workers at Pillowtex in North Carolina, after a decades-long struggle, points to what's possible.
The campaign against "offshore contractors," however, is part of the decades-long retreat of our union, a retreat that has resulted in declining real wages and deteriorating working conditions of garment and textile workers in the United States, along with a decline in the unionized component of both industries. One byproduct of this retreat is the growing number of garment sweatshops in the United States.
Gaining political clarity and a working-class perspective on this question is crucial to workers of all industries in figuring out how to chart a course forward, along an internationalist, working-class axis.
A good starting point is joining the picket lines of Overnite truckers fighting to build a union, supporting coal miners' fight to keep lifetime health benefits, and standing with Puerto Rican workers and students demanding the U.S. military stop using the island of Vieques as a bombing practice zone.
Lisa Potash is a sewing machine operator and member of UNITE in Chicago.
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