Tuesday, August 3, 2010


Arthur R Loevy


 Robert Fitch

This holiday season, UNITE, the needle-trades union that nearly a
century ago began to transform Manhattan’s rag trade jungle into a
social democracy, bought full-page ads in major papers across the
country. ‘’We are taking a stand against sweatshops,'’ the union
declared. ‘’When you shop this season,'’ UNITE told shoppers, ‘’please
remember the women, men, and sometimes even children who have sewn the
clothes you may purchase.'’

Here in New York, Guess Inc. stood out as the main target of the union’s
ant sweatshop campaign. On December 4, UNITE staged a protest in front
of Guess Inc.’s Soho outlet. Guess is the high-fashion, low-wage jeans
manufacturer that’s been based in L.A. But as it transferred its
nonunion operations from L.A. to Mexico, Guess found itself moving to
the top of UNITE’s list of renegade clothes producers, where now
union-friendly Kathie Lee Gifford used to be.

But on the same day as the Guess protest, just a few doors down the
street at 446 Broadway, where Soho’s fashionable boutiques begin to
bleed into Chinatown’s Dickensian sweatshops, Dennis Vacco, attorney
general of New York, held his own press conference. UNITE’s ‘’Season of
Concern'’ for sweatshop workers was about to be interrupted by an
embarrassing revelation.

Vacco announced that he was set to arrest Lai Fong Yuen, a sportswear
contractor, who had been making clothes inside 446 Broadway for Kathie
Lee Gifford. Yuen, he charged, had failed to pay nearly 100 workers for
10 weeks. When she had paid them, she had consistently violated state
minimum wage and overtime laws. Inside her three factories, workers had
regularly put in 10-to-11-hour days, seven days a week. Most had earned
only a fraction of the $5.15-an-hour federal minimum wage. Some had
earned as little as $1 an hour. In November, Yuen had tried to skip out
on her workers, sending them home, then sending in movers to pick up her
sewing machines and clothes.

For jaded New Yorkers inclined to question the novelty of Chinese
immigrants working here under sweatshop conditions, Vacco produced this
surprise: 446 Broadway was a union sweatshop.

Lai Fong Yuen had been producing Kathie Lee clothes under a contract
Local 23-25
of UNITE. What’s more, a recent internal Labor
Department investigation into New York City sweatshops–portions of
which were obtained by the Voice under the Freedom of Information
Act–shows conditions in Lai Fong Yuen’s shops weren’t so different from
those in the other 250 Chinatown plants where
Local 23-25
contracts are
in force.

The original survey, released by Labor Secretary Alexis Herman on
October 16, studiously avoided drawing attention to comparisons between
union and nonunion sweatshops. But the raw data suggest that contractors
with union agreements actually tend to have more wage and hour
violations than nonunion plants.

Standing in the darkened factory at 446 Broadway, Vacco pledged to
recover the money owed the members of 23-25–variously estimated at
$300,000 to $500,000. About a dozen laughing, jubilant union women
surrounded Vacco, celebrating their partial victory over the inscrutable
system of American labor law. The Chinese immigrant women called down to
dozens of their fellow workers on the sidewalk, and a few climbed the
stairs to join them alongside Vacco. But no officials of 23-25 were
invited to share the moment–either by Vacco or the workers.

UNITE–which stands for United Needle and Industrial Trade
Employees–has a history that goes back to the 1909 ‘’Uprising of the
20,000.'’ That year, Jewish immigrant women, in revolt against their
bosses and conservative union leaders, staged a mass strike that led to
the rise of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. In 1995,
the 100,000-member ILGWU merged with the 90,000-member Amalgamated
Clothing and Textile Workers–Norma Rae’s union–to form UNITE.

23-25, the largest local in UNITE, could be called the mother of
presidents. UNITE president Jay Mazur became head of the ILGWU in 1986
because of his stewardship of 23-25. Mazur, who speaks no Cantonese,
organized downtown Chinese workers by winning over their uptown Seventh
Avenue bosses. Mazur won a flood of agreements with manufacturers
(sometimes reportedly by offering manufacturers better contracts than
other ILGWU locals had offered). Then the contractors signed up with the
union in order to get work from the manufacturers. Sometimes contractors
even paid workers’ union initiation fees. Workers got a health plan,
which is now much watered-down because of income restrictions and high
employee co-payments, which nonunion contractors did not offer.

These fees, together with workers’ dues of $18 a month–almost equal to
what a $40,000-a-year NEA teacher pays in dues–all add up. Last year,
Local 23-25’s total income topped $10 million. Four million came from
dues, and UNITE’s share of the local’s take was $2 million. UNITE knows
how to accumulate capital. The union began 1996 with $226 million in
assets. It owns Manhattan office buildings that house commercial tenants
like rag queen Donna Karan. UNITE even owns a bank the
Amalgamated–that its accountants value at $57 million.

Still, income from 23-25 members is critical: the rest of the union is
shrinking, and shrinking fast. The ILGWU went from 450,000 members at
its peak to 100,000 by 1995. Yet membership in 23-25 has stayed the same
for nearly 20 years.

What’s worse, Local 23-25 is currently under investigation by the
Racketeering Division of the U.S. Department of Labor. An official in
the department refused to speculate about whether indictments would come
down, saying he couldn’t predict the outcome of the investigation. But
federal investigators say the inquiry into racketeering activities grows
directly out of the bribery conviction of Local 23-25 official Eddie Ko,
a $40,000-a-year business agent. On September 10, 1996, Ko pleaded
guilty in U.S. district court to taking nearly $5400 in bribes from
employers over a two-year period. Ko is still awaiting sentencing.

And the ongoing investigation into possible widespread corruption in
Local 23-25 recalls a similar inquiry into UNITE’s Local 10–Dubinsky’s
old local–that began four years ago and resulted in jail time for its
top officials. In 1993, federal investigators set up a sting operation
called ‘’Brain Cutting'’ using a garment-shop front on East 34th Street.
Almost immediately, Israel Mechlowicz, the local’s manager, and Seymour
Resnick, the local’s assistant manager, dropped by to solicit bribes. In
exchange for cash, the union officials promised to look the other way
while the ‘’bosses'’ stole workers’ benefits and 

‘’double-breasted'’–used nonunion labor while under union contract. A
backroom video camera caught them on tape taking bribes from federal

‘’An isolated incident and a temporary setback,'’ announced Jay Mazur in
1994, after Resnick and Mechlowicz were sentenced. But it turned out the
corruption wasn’t isolated at all. In December 1994, another set of
Local 10 officials was caught taking bribes from manufacturers.
Contractors for Anne Klein bribed Local 10 business agents to let them
use nonunion labor and ignore payments to union health funds. Sometimes
all it took was $200.

And just this summer, top officials in UNITE were deeply shaken by the
revelations coming out of Daily News reporter Ying Chan’s investigation
into the death of 11-year-old Quin-Rong Wu. For weeks, police searched
for the missing girl, who’d only recently arrived in America. She was
discovered murdered on May 28, her body thrown into the East River.

Though tabloid accounts had painted a picture of Wu as a happy Chinatown
school kid, Chan discovered the girl had actually spent her last days
working in a union garment factory, NBC Connections, at 54 Canal Street.
‘’She was so small,'’ a coworker recalled, ‘’she had to rest her chin on
the machine.'’

Her mother claimed that Wu had just played on the sewing machines, but
coworkers reported that tiny Quin-Rong Wu worked at machine number 67 in
a factory belonging to Johnny Lam, Chinatown’s most prominent garment
contractor. Lam, who owns 14 factories, is the former head of the
Sportswear Apparel Association, which maintains a model collective
bargaining agreement with UNITE locals 10 and 23-25. The contract
provides a 35-hour week and wages as high as $10 an hour. Had the union
enforced the contract, Quin-Rong’s mother, You Qin Wu, would have taken
home substantially more than the $100 a week she was earning under the
supervision of Johnny Lam’s sister JoAnn.

Child labor is no aberration in Chinatown’s union shops. Quin-Rong’s
family had to pay $700 a month for rent. Her father earned only $350 a
week working in a noodle factory. Earning less than $2 an hour, You Qin
Wu had to work long days. The family couldn’t afford child care. So
Quin-Rong came to the factory and wound up working alongside her

Sweatshops in Chinatown are as well known as whorehouses in Amsterdam’s
red-light district. And nearly as visible. ‘’Everybody in China- town
knows,'’ says Peter Kwong, chair of the Asian-American Studies program
at Hunter College and author of a new book on Chinese immigrants,
Forbidden Workers. ‘’It’s not as if the sweatshops were underground. You
can stand outside and see the lights burning all along Canal Street till
midnight. The whole economy of Chinatown is organized around the
sweatshop schedule. Fast-food shops stay open so they can sell to the
women who come off work at 9 p.m.'’ About 250 of Chinatown’s more than
500 garment factories have contracts with Local 23-25, according to
Louis Vanegas, who participated in the Department of Labor sweatshop

Could Local 23-25 be unaware that children are working in its factories?
Each shop is supposed to have a business agent who’s paid to service the
members’ concerns and make sure the contract is enforced. You could
argue the kids are small and escape notice. But how could the union be
unaware that its members are being forced to violate the contract by
working 12 hours a day?

The union does know that its members are being systematically defrauded
by contractors who pay only a fraction of what they owe into employee
benefit funds–the largest single number of cases in the Southern
District consists of union suits seeking payment from contractors for
unpaid benefit contributions. Besides, Local 23-25’s assistant manager
May Chen says UNITE can’t be blamed for failing to enforce its contracts
with sweatshop owners. Chen, the first Chinese American woman in the
overwhelmingly Chinese local to serve as an officer, takes issue with
the the October 16 Labor Department study that portrays violations in
union shops as more widespread than in nonunion shops. In the
department’s 94-shop survey, 15 of the 20 union shops were in violation
of labor standards. Among nonunion shops the percentage was 59 per cent.
The report shows neither union nor nonunion contractors have much to be
proud of: only 37 per cent of all shops surveyed complied with federal
minimum wage and overtime laws.

‘’UNITE is very concerned with the results of the study,'’ Chen says.
Still, she disputes the Labor Department’s data. ‘’It’s our impression
that the department’s method of determining which shop was union and
which was nonunion was flawed. They just asked the owners in passing,
‘Are you a union shop?”’ So, Chen argues, nonunion owners lied–they
claimed to have unions–to make a good impression on the Labor
Department, and the department didn’t double-check.

And Chen denies that corruption is endemic in Local 23-25. ‘’Eddie Ko
was fired as soon as he was indicted,'’ she points out. Since Ko was
fired, Chen says, the local has gotten rid of five of its 14 business
agents. Four were offered early retirement. None have been replaced.

Sweatshop conditions persist in union shops, says Chen, because of
market forces and the unusual closeness that exists between Chinese
contractors and their employees. ‘’I think the union is making a
good-faith effort,'’ she says. ‘’In the garment industry we’re operating
in an environment of extreme competition. The bosses and the workers
share the same ethnicity. They’re very close-knit. The odds are stacked
against us.'’

A recent Photo in the Chinese press shows a smiling May Chen, with Edgar
Romney, cutting Christmas cake with Johnny Lam, the sportswear mogul. It
suggests what 446 Broadway sweatshop workers I interviewed actually
feel: that it’s the union that has close-knit ties with the boss–not

In the world of 446 Broadway, Mr. Lin (not his real name), a 35-year-old
leather-jacketed garment worker, is something of a labor aristocrat.
‘’Most people make less than me,'’ he observed. Lin earned nearly $350 a
week putting in 12-hour days six and sometimes seven days a week. But by
October, Lin and the rest of the 446 workers weren’t getting anything.
Why didn’t he complain to the union? ‘’Once I did complain in this other
shop. We hadn’t been paid for 13 weeks. I called the business agent.
Later that week, the boss came up to me. ‘I can’t afford to keep you,’
he said. He paid me what he owed me. But I got fired.'’ Other workers
express similar fears and complaints about the union.

‘’It seems as if the union dragged on the case to give an opportunity to
the boss,'’ observes Mrs. Chin, another 446 Broadway worker and a
60-year-old grandmother, who’s been working in garment factories ‘’ever
since I got off the plane'’ in 1990. Mrs. Chin (also not her real name),
was one of nearly two dozen workers who slept on the street in front of
446 Broadway in a round-the-clock vigil to prevent Lai Fong Yuen from
moving her machines and clothes out of the factory in November.

‘’The union bosses only showed up after we appeared on Good Morning New
York,'’ says Mrs. Chin. At 10 a.m., while the movers were carrying out
the machines, May Chen arrived. ‘’She told us to go into the pen,'’ the
area the police had marked off for protesters far down the street, says
Mrs. Chin. ‘’May Chen says there’s nothing for us to do. If we try to
stop the machines from leaving, the police will arrest us. The union
doesn’t want arrests.'’ Then, Mrs. Chin says, May Chen ‘’tells us to
shout for the TV cameras ‘Boycott Sweatshops!’ I don’t even know what
this means. And she never told us.'’ According to Chen, she was only
concerned about the workers’ welfare.

What’s wrong with UNITE’s season-of-conscience campaign is not that it
exists, but that it exists in an organizing vacuum. Like May Chen’s
effort to get the workers to chant ‘’Boycott Sweatshops!'’ while their
boss moved the collateral for their back pay out the door under police
protection, it’s a distraction from the main task.

Remember Mrs. Jellyby in Dickens’s Bleak House? She winds up neglecting
her own children. One falls down a shaft because she is so preoccupied
with the welfare of children in far-off Boriobagoola-gha. It turns out
that Mrs. Jellyby’s husband has a project for teaching the children of
Boriobagoola-gha how to manufacture piano legs for export.

UNITE’s aging white leadership substitutes media campaigns aimed at
upper-middle-class consumers for the indispensable effort of connecting
with Asian and Latino immigrant members and potential members. Some of
these immigrant workers have joined UNITE’s workers’ centers in Brooklyn
and Manhattan, but trapped in its fatal tradition of organizing the
bosses, the union rarely organizes elections for new members. But the
Dubinsky days are over. The bosses aren’t signing up anymore. They
taunt, in their own full-page ads in the L.A. Times, ‘’UNITE has not
conducted a single election to unionize in more than 30 years in
Southern California.'’ That’s why it’s consumer-boycott time. But
consumer consciousness won’t make sweatshops go away. Only union
consciousness will. It wasn’t just the 1909 Uprising of the 20,000 in
Manhattan–in Chicago, where the Amalgamated was founded in 1910, and in
cities across the country, it was mass strikes that built unions.

This season, UNITE ought to examine its own conscience. Is it a union,
or is the union just a loss leader for its banking, real estate, and
securities operations? Peter Kwong recalls that it was an uprising of
Jewish immigrant women, dismissed as passive, clannish, and trapped by a
foreign language, that created the union and the moral capital off of
which its present leaders now live. Says Kwong, ‘’By not giving Chinese
women a real chance to participate in the life of the union, today’s
leaders are denying their own history.'’ Six-figure UNITE leaders ought
to ask themselves, ‘’Are Mrs. Cheng and the women who blocked the boss’s
trucks at 446 Broadway so different from our own grandmothers?'’

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