April 28, 2006

Sweatshops and Unions

Who knew there was a journal called Human Rights & Human Welfare? Well, there is, and it's fascinating. Richard McIntyre's essay "Are Workers Rights Human Rights and Would It Matter If They Were?" has some good stuff, notably his review of Robert Ross' investigation into American sweatshops. If you go by the GAO's definition—"a business that regularly violates wage or child labor laws and safety and health laws"—then there are 250,000 sweatshop workers in the United States. That figure excludes a good number of people working under poor conditions for low pay, but it's a start. But I'm less convinced as to the reason these sweatshops exist:
Undocumented immigration is a condition for the new American sweatshop. But, as Ross points out, large numbers of immigrants need not mean sweatshops, as the Puerto Rican wave of immigration to New York City in the 1950s demonstrated. It is globalization, with the accompanying decline in union power and in the State’s inability (or unwillingness) to regulate labor markets that has encouraged the growth of sweatshops, and the concentrated power of the mass retailers that has called them into being.
It seems—at least at times—more complicated than that. For instance: In 1997, a Labor report found that two-thirds of the garment shops in New York City were sweatshops, with twelve-hour days and seven-day weeks and wages under the federal minimum. Fun times for all. Partly that's a consequence of the decline in monitoring. During the Carter administration, the Labor Department had 1,600 wage-and-hour inspectors; that was slashed to 700 under Reagan, and only bumped up slightly to 940 or so under Clinton.

What's striking, though, is that many three those shops were actually union shops, run by UNITE-HERE (which was, ironically, organizing protests against sweatshops in the Third World at the time). In fact, three-fourths of the union's shops were in violation of the law. UNITE had basically stopped enforcing its contracts.

As Robert Fitch tells it in Solidarity for Sale, his interesting-yet-sketchy book on labor corruption, this was partly because locals such as UNITE's 23-25 were controlled by the mob and had been colluding with and even receiving bribes from employers not to enforce contracts. (Seven members of the Lucchese crime family were convicted over the racket; no UNITE officials were ever indicted.) What's more, in Fitch's telling, many of the mob-dominated garment unions in New York have been doing this for a long, long time—receiving bribes in exchange for allowing contractors to pay sub-minimum wages and violate labor laws.

Of course, mob-controlled unions are hardly the whole story. (In any case, UNITE has seriously cleaned itself up over the past few years—although Fitch claims that factory conditions in unionized Chinatown have only worsened since 2001, and the official decline in union sweatshops is only due to a change in Labor Department reporting requirements). More importantly, perhaps, over the past fifty years New York garment unions like UNITE and the ILGWU have made it their explicit strategy to lower wages in order to keep contractors from moving out of the city. Here's Fitch:
To maintain bottom-feeding wage levels, the social-democratic [ILGWU leader David] Dubinsky embraced the most Dickensian version of capitalism—piece-rate wages, no-strike pledges, five-year contracts, opposition to the minimum wage, and opposition to government aid—complete with up-to-date Fagins in the form of the city's major Mafia families. This low-road strategy led naturally to a reliance on illegal immigrants and made the New York City industry more and more vulnerable to cheap foreign imports….

Of the cheap labor strategy, at least it could be said that it kept enough of the industry in place so that New York City officials could retain their power and retire on fat pensions. But the costs were great. The measures required to keep wages low destroyed the moral substance of the union. Even poorer waves of unskilled immigrant workers had to be imported who would find life at the bottom acceptable. The once-vibrant political life of the union had to be extinguished. With constitutional changes, opposition to the leadership became difficult.
But isn't this strategy sometimes the only way to go? In the face of globalization—or, at the very least, mobile capital—won't unions sometimes, or even often, have to agree to lower standards in order to preserve their membership base? Isn't that Ross' whole point above?

Maybe, but consider this. According to a 1999 report, the vast majority of garment shops in San Francisco, despite being mostly non-unionized, still manage to pay the city minimum of $8.15 an hour and comply with labor laws, while in New York unionized workers were making under $5.15 an hour and repeatedly subject to wage and hour violations. The United States, meanwhile, imports billions of dollars of clothes from Northern Italy each year, where garment workers make two or three times what their counterparts in New York make. So it's not clear that globalization always has to create a race to the bottom. At the very least, to slap a hackneyed conclusion on this rambling little post, "it's complicated."
-- Brad Plumer 4:15 PM || ||