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Issue #1771      March 29, 2017

100 years of LA garment work

LOS ANGELES: This year, to mark International Working Women’s Day/Día international de la mujer trabajadora, the UCLA Labour Centre, pairing with the UCLA Centre for Jewish Studies, sponsored an uplifting afternoon at the Labour Centre’s building across from downtown’s MacArthur Park.

Dr Caroline Luce, UCLA professor of labour history, had her students prepare graphic displays showing the history of women in the needle trades in Los Angeles. A hundred years ago these women were mostly Jewish and Italian, the same demographics of the garment industry in New York at the time. Over time, as new waves of immigrants arrived, the workers became mostly Latina and Asian.

A quilt board held a new banner to celebrate the centennial. Women (and a man or two) sewed down the appliquéd lettering and imagery, and added their own initials if they wished. Many of these women were current garment workers employed in the sweatshops of Los Angeles. This city is now the garment manufacturing capital of the United States, although these days most of the clothing worn in this country is made abroad for much lower wages.

Luce recounted the brief history of women working in the garment industry in LA, and then invited labour organiser Christina Vásquez to give the keynote address. Vásquez pointed out that the hall in which we were meeting belonged to the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), which later merged to become today’s UNITE HERE. It is now leased out to the UCLA Labour Centre to serve workers in all industries.

An immigrant herself, from Mexico, Vásquez started early in garment worker organising, starting as a trimmer in a shop. She moved to an office job, but when the workers struck for better pay and working conditions, she joined them on the picket line and was promptly fired. At that time, in the 1970s, immigrant labour was the poor stepchild of the labour movement. Labour leadership – which did not resemble the union membership – still believed that immigrants were taking jobs away from American citizens and lowering wages for all. Openly, at meetings of the LA County Federation of Labour in those days, disparaging comments could be heard about fellow workers from other countries who, like everyone else, were simply living pay cheque to pay cheque and trying to stay afloat.

After the immigrant women started winning some of their job actions, however, the tide started turning. When bus-loads of women garment workers appeared at boycott demonstrations against the anti-labour, anti-gay Coors beer company in the 1970s, and when the boycott won, immigrant labour won a new level of respect.

Under the influence of County Fed leader Miguel Contreras, the movement came to see that organised labour meant defending all working people and that together they would make a stronger labour movement. (Significant strains in the working class today need to be reminded of that lesson!)

In the early days of garment manufacturing, the whole garment was designed, created and marketed out of one company and one building. After NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) came in, much of the work could be subcontracted out to Mexico. A plethora of subsidiary companies popped up, nimbly able to avoid prosecution for labour abuses by shutting down operations, moving the sewing machines to another locale, changing the name and titular ownership of the firm and starting up again. The owners could not be found, the workers went unpaid.

Sadly, the same issues that affected garment work a century ago, such as long hours, poor wages and no overtime, wage theft, locked doors, unhealthy and unsafe working conditions, all continue to exist today.

There are even sweatshops in LA that literally employ slave labour, people from other countries held against their will, their passports taken, and forced to work for fear of deportation or harm to their families back home.

Under these conditions, Vásquez said, it’s impossible to simply organise shop by shop. We need to create a mass movement, pass laws and enforce them. This is what she wanted students at the UCLA Labour Centre to take from this event: You can make change. Legislators and employers must in the end listen to workers, students, youth, and of course consumers.

Carry the banner of scarlet

In the concluding cultural portion of the program, the audience sang along to the familiar Mimi Fariña setting of the James Oppenheim poem Bread and Roses, which came out of the 1912 Lawrence textile strike.

In tribute to the early Yiddish-speaking Jewish workers in the trade, a new Spanish translation (by Dulce Ramírez Gómez) was read to accompany an English translation (by Rose Pastor Stokes) of the poem In the Factory by Morris Rosenfeld, one of the famous Jewish “sweatshop poets” of a century ago.

Ruth Judkowitz and this writer, two members of the Southern California Arbeter Ring (Workmen’s Circle) – which began in LA in 1908 and soon included a branch of ILGWU workers – sang the classic songs Union Maid and Solidarity Forever. They began with the 1891 song Arbeter Froyen (You Working Women) by another sweatshop poet, Dovid Edelshtat, who himself died young of tuberculosis from his hard working life. The trilingual printed program carried the verses of this song, including (perhaps for the first time?) a Spanish translation.


You working women

You working women, suffering women,
Women who languish at home and in mills:
Oh, why don’t you help us in building the Temple
Of freedom and joy that will end the world’s ills?

Help us carry the banner of scarlet
Forward through storm and through the dark night.
Help us bring truth to all of the people,
To the unfortunate let us bring light.

Help us lift the world from oppression,
Raising up everything that we hold dear.
Struggle together like powerful lions,
For freedom, equality – principles clear.

More than once women have shown that they’re able,
Made tremble hangmen and throne.
They’ve shown the world that they can be entrusted
The holy banner in bitterest storm.

Dovid Edelshtat
(Translated from Yiddish by Jerry Silverman)

Next article – Taking on the sand mafia

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