Garment workers: Yesterday, today, and tomorrow

Buses headed for the center of the Fashion District of Los Angeles pull up to a corner not far from the Pico Metro Station. The DASH F bus is built to handle twenty seated passengers, and perhaps an additional fifteen standing. By the first few stops in South Central Los Angeles, though, the buses are filled with as many as sixty people on their way to work. Eventually the bus driver stops taking new passengers. As we pass nearby Los Angeles Street and Santee Alley, they begin to get off the bus and enter nondescript buildings. These three- to four-story unmarked industrial buildings appear to be home to dozens or more workers. While workers enter the building from the inbound bus, other visibly tired workers, mostly young women, lean against the bus signpost heading back to South Central. Their shifts have just ended.

Today there is little research into what working conditions are like for sweatshop garment workers in the United States. Indeed, most people are unaware such an industry exists in the United States, or if they do, they think it must be a rare. Meanwhile, a seemingly unlimited supply of fresh fashion pours from LA’s Fashion District into the department stores and fashion retailers. At locations like the California Market Center, young fashion designers sweat under bright lights and the critical eyes of wholesale clients who may be interested in their latest handmade piece. The successful designer’s garments are approved for purchase and must be ready to order as quickly as possible. The garment must be manufactured in multiple sizes, and in enough quantities to stock several retailers’ displays. How do retail wholesale purchasers manage to find the latest fashion, and procure sizeable orders in the same week? The only means by which this is possible is through the laborers working in the shadows of the Fashion District.

Textiles have long been known as an industry with brutal working conditions. In terms of raw material production, textiles historically began as cotton planted and harvested by slaves in the colonial period until the industrial revolution. The history of textile manufacturing is the history of capitalist development itself, and the history of the development of this lucrative market is the history of slavery from point of purchase in Africa, to their destination on cotton plantations in the South. By 1834, textile spinning mills littered the Northeast of the United States, employing mostly women and their daughters to operate dangerous, yet delicate, machinery that was often too small for grown men’s hands to operate. The workers in these mill operations were quick to conflict with their employers, jumpstarting the earliest labor movements in the history of the United States. 1834 and 1836 were marked by mass strikes in Lowell, Massachusetts, where textile laborers decided to take action against a series of wage cuts.1 The textile industry, though roiled with frequent labor action, remained a job only for the lowest paid wage workers in the most deplorable conditions throughout the nineteenth century. By 1911 the garment workers, still fighting for basic safety conditions and livable wages, witnessed a lock-in and the death of 134 women and girls during a fire that temporarily turned public attention to the plight of sweatshop garment workers. In 1912, the famous Lawrence Strike garnered further attention. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) sought to organize laborers who were otherwise ignored by trade unions of the time due to their status as recent immigrants. Conditions in the 1912 Lawrence textile mills are described as no less deplorable than in 1836, with women living on $9 a week, and industrial accidents being so widespread that many garment workers were lucky to see their twenty-fifth birthday.2 And then, exactly one century after the first strikes in Lowell, a nationwide general strike in solidarity with the West Coast Longshoremen swept garment factories on the East Coast. On September 1934, in Saylesville, Rhode Island, the National Guard was called in to stop as many as 4,000 workers from storming the mills.3 With a century of labor struggle in the textile mills over basic safety and wage concerns, it seemed no reconciliation was in sight. It appeared that clothing must be made cheaply, with little regard to safety, or it will not be made for profit at all.

From old letters or grainy photographs, the textile workers’ struggle appears distant. However, in the nearly nine decades since the last major battle between textile workers and the state and capitalist class, the production and shipment of garments has been completely transformed. But their conditions of production have changed very little. Americans buying clothing today can read the tags of garments to see where much of the cheapest manufacturing labor has been exported in order to maintain profit margins. Thailand, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and other countries in South Asia produce a great quantity of cheap garments that fill stocks in department stores in Illinois, Texas, and California. The textile mills of the Northeast have been since retrofitted into high-end condominium spaces for young professionals, with the façades of these mills regarded as critical components of the region’s “historical significance.” Even as workers saw their jobs evaporate into thin air in these regions, textile manufacturers took to the South to find cheap labor. This lasted only as long as costs could permit, and even many of the textile operations of the South have been moved overseas. However, the trend of “fast fashion” has since prevailed. As not every consumer is satisfied buying the cheap and out of season products that appear in Walmarts across the nation, many require clothes to be cheap enough to be purchased seasonally to stay in style.

“Fast fashion” is the term coined to describe the mass production of designer clothing of relatively low physical quality, but of higher value due to the high turnover of fashion trends. These clothes are largely produced outside of the United States, but their initial production guarantees garment labor required there. This is because the rapidly-decaying value of a product from design, to wholesale purchase, to retail floor dictates that overseas production keeps the commodity from reaching the market in time. For this reason Los Angeles, the capital of fashion consciousness, has been home to decades of sweatshop labor practices that mimic both the conditions of workers in countries like Bangladesh and those of US mill workers near the turn of the twentieth century.

A major scandal erupted after the discovery of a large sweatshop operation in the city of El Monte, CA in 1995.4 Seventy-two Thai women were “recruited” for work in the United States. These workers were brought to the United States with a debt that they could not realistically repay, and were required to work up to 22 hours in a single day at under $2 per hour to repay the massive loan. The discovery of this operation sent shockwaves through the community. Although the women involved in this specific incident were not deported, the failure of both media coverage and non-profit activism regarding this single case cannot go unnoticed. Outrage at this heinous case of labor trafficking and exploitation did not manifest as a movement to investigate further cases of exploitation. Yet the likelihood that this was the only operation of its kind providing textiles for major department stores and designer retail stores alike was low. Even in the initial investigation following the discovery of the El Monte operation, large sums of money and paperwork dating back several years indicated that a firm could operate illegally under conditions like these with little or no suspicion. Gone are the days when the textile barons boldly display their names on the factory façade. Contemporary sweatshops are relegated to the shadows, and even investigation into these practices can put the workers at great risk of either deportation or violent retaliation from their traffickers. The 1995 El Monte case is remembered by many locals in Southern California. Although, many view it as an unusual case, as if this is no longer the primary means by which many retailers get their products to market faster than the competition. This is obviously far from the truth. The US Department of Labor began investigations of sweatshop labor in garment production in 2016, only to uncover that the practice is alive and well in the twenty-first century. Labor practices throughout the Los Angeles area include conditions not unlike those found elsewhere in the world, with long hours and pay well below the minimum wage. These practices, as it turns out, are not anomalous — they are in fact the norm.

Communists must consider the links between the struggle of migrant laborers working outside the protections of Federal and state laws in the United States and struggles taking place around the world. The Dhaka fire in 2012, just over a century after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, points to the failure of capitalism to provide for more than mere subsistence level wages in one of its oldest and most developed markets. While many are aware that these conditions continue to exist in deeply impoverished countries, the myth persists that workers in the United States are protected from such “excesses.” Rather than viewing this as a problem of uneven development, Marxists should consider instead that this is a problem related to the falling rate of profit. Markets with razor-thin margins due to the centralization and scale of their production in developed capitalism still require manual labor at points of production that no technological advances have been able to automate. The only solution the capitalist class has found to make these essential commodities is to search for creative ways to bring the cost of production down to its bare minimum. By circumventing legal structures, and taking advantage of relative economic underdevelopment throughout the world, capitalists have resorted to the employment of workers who enjoy no legal protections, are desperate to survive, and whose wages could simply go no lower if they are expected to show up to work the next day.

Labor unions — which have worked doubly to protect only workers with legal status, as well as shield the state from any direct confrontation with the working class — offer no solution to those workers who must live with no paper trail if they want to remain safe from deportation. For those workers whose labor provides the clothing on our backs or the food on our tables, the choice is state violence or violence directly inflicted on them by the bosses, who could retaliate by simply threatening to cut them off from work, leaving them to survive with no documentation. As labor unions decline in significance and membership in the United States, the question arises as to what “legal” and “protected” work will look like in the coming decades. With a continual market push to reduce costs and an increasing demand on the worker to pay for basic necessities, such as food and housing, labor unions, which have long since sold the strike option to the highest bidder, will not give even “legal” workers recourse in an economy that has an expected loss in accumulated worker wealth for the first time in generations. Perhaps the future could be just as bleak for the retail and food-service workers responsible for handling the products manufactured or grown by their undocumented peers.  For communists, the task ahead will be to identify the most important struggles for the undocumented workers that fill these hidden factories. While there will likely be other non-communist organizations also involved in these struggles, it is important to put forward a communist political program in any discussion with workers in the midst of organizing for better working conditions. Struggles like these create opportunities for communists to forge meaningful bonds with the rest of the working class, provide crucial aid, and promote any activity that falls outside of the boundaries of what the unions are willing or able to do. All workers, particularly those who enjoy few legal protections, stand to benefit from wresting control over their own struggles and working conditions from the bosses and the union bureaucracy. It is also important to note that labor unions have largely written off garment workers, many of whom are undocumented. Sometimes the unions even try to prevent them from organizing, for legal reasons. The difficulty involved in organizing among workers who fear the personal retaliation of their bosses or deportation cannot be overstated.

Anybody who is willing to fight in this vulnerable situation must feel that they are not under immediate threat of displacement. This poses a challenge to communists who are aware of the unmistakable proletarian character of these workers, but who understand that the struggle for minimal protections puts them at great risk. Communists should prioritize safety and discretion. Assisting workers in getting legal or financial aid amid struggle may be necessary. In the worst-case scenario, workers could face deportation, in which case access to legal counsel may be inadequate, and safe harbor may be the last resort. The standard practice of discussing theory and action should not be ignored, however. As hidden as the garment workers appear to be, only noticeable to those paying attention while riding the buses into and out of the Fashion District, for example, they are part of a larger community of proletarians eking out an existence on the sidelines of American capitalism. Regardless of the potential legal risks imposed on them by the state, the greatest risk comes to the industry that would come to a halt without them. The garment workers, like all workers, have leverage against capital in that they will always be more indispensable to production than the capitalists who exploit them.

Magnus Zeller

1 RB Brooks. History of Massachusetts blog. (January 27, 2017).

2 CP Neill. Report on Strike of Textile Workers in Lawrence, Mass. in 1912. (Washington Govt. Printing Office. Washington, D.C.: 1912).

3 B Plain. “Labor Day and the Saylesville Massacre.” RI Future. (September 7, 2015).

4 G White. “Workers Held in Near-Slavery, Officials Say.” Los Angeles Times. (August 3, 1995).