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Going Down the Road | The Nation

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Going Down the Road

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couple of years ago, Susan DeMarco and I were doing our radio talk show, Chat & Chew, on the topic of sweatshop goods. A lady from Jackson, Mississippi, called to say that whenever she goes into a store to shop for clothing, she always tries to find a manager and asks, "Can you tell me where your made-in-the-USA section is?" Good question. Go into any clothing department and everything in there--from overcoats to undies, hats to shoes--bears labels that shout: made in China, Bangladesh, El Salvador, the Philippines...everywhere but the US of A. This is not only in the Wal-Marts and Targets but also in the upscale Talbotses and Abercrombie & Fitches.

About the Author

Jim Hightower
Jim Hightower has been called America's favorite populist. He's been editor of The Texas Observer, president of the...

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This old American democratic tradition already has deep support at the grassroots.

People are wriggling free of the fetters of corporate culture.

It's not that Americans are unable to make quality stuff, but the ugly fact is that corporations have abandoned US workers and communities in hot pursuit of ever-fatter profits, rushing off to the lowest-wage hellholes they can find to cut and sew their garments. Instead of paying even a minimum wage of $5.15 an hour here, they can get wage slaves at 13 cents an hour in China--then ship the goods back here without lowering the price they charge us. The corporations gleefully pocket the difference in labor costs--and claim that this is the "magic" of the new global market at work. It is certainly magic for them.

For us it is globaloney--just the same old greed. But what's a consumer to do? Even if a garment is made in the United States, some companies also run sweatshops here, with workers, usually recent immigrants, crammed into basement "contract shops," making less than minimum wage. How can we combat the scourge of sweatshops everywhere? Government could take action, but even under Bill Clinton, it was Nike, Gap, Ralph Lauren and other bigwigs that dominated the discussion, so Washington did nothing but dabble and dawdle. Of course, under King George the W, even discussion has stopped.

SweatX Is Chic

The good news is that people themselves--especially children and young people--see sweatshops as a moral abomination, putting them (yet again) well ahead of officialdom. Major groups like United Students Against Sweatshops, the National Labor Committee, Global Exchange and the garment union UNITE have been aggressively exposing, agitating and organizing against sweatshop labor. As this political organizing expands, an important assault on sweatshops has come from the one place the multibillion-dollar industry least expects: The marketplace itself.

SweatX is a new brand of garment in every sense of the word. The Hot Fudge Social Venture Fund, set up by Ben Cohen, the puckish entrepreneur and social activist of Ben & Jerry's ice cream fame, has invested $1 million to date in a brand-new garment business in Los Angeles. The business, called teamX, is based on a thoroughly radical principle: "Garment workers don't have to be exploited in order to operate a financially successful apparel factory." Imagine.

Inspired and informed by Spain's Mondragon Industrial Cooperatives (a fifty-year-old network of successful employee-owned businesses: www.mcc.es), teamX is organized as a worker-owned co-op that (1) is a union shop organized by UNITE; (2) pays a living wage starting at $8.50 an hour; (3) provides good healthcare, a pension and a share of profits through co-op ownership; (4) practices the "solidarity ratio," in which no executive is paid more than eight times what the lowest-paid worker gets; and (5) intends to make a profit, grow and spread its progressive seed.

This is no touchie-feelie, froufrou social exercise but a bottom-line business initiative to show that doing well can also mean doing good. Pierre Ferrari's twenty-five years in the corporate world ranges from being VP of Coca-Cola to being director of Ben & Jerry's...to now being CEO of teamX. These entrepreneurial folks believed that there had to be a better way than sweatshops. Ferrari immersed himself in the economics of garment production. His most shocking (and enlightening) discovery was that a sweatshop worker in the United States gets about 25 cents to make a T-shirt that retails for as much as 18 bucks. Let's say that a worker grosses about $9,000 a year. Poverty. What if you doubled the wage--to 50 cents per shirt? The increase would not affect the buyer, but that worker would suddenly be getting $18,000 a year. Not exactly a fortune, but a livable wage. "Come on," says Ferrari, "they're exploiting people for a lousy 25 cents?"

Building the Brand

This March, twenty teamX employee-owners, many of whom previously had been sweatshop workers, began production in Los Angeles on their company's first line of stylish shirts, shorts, caps and other casual wear, working with state-of-the-art equipment in a brand-new factory. "I've been working in clothing for twenty years, and I never had a paid holiday before this," one of the employees told the Los Angeles Times. A small, experienced team of managers has been assembled, drawing especially on some older managers who are not merely chasing bucks but looking to add a moral dimension to their work lives.

To build the brand identity, teamX is initially targeting the activist community--campuses, unions, churches, local governments, nonprofits, etc. (The T-shirts for my Rolling Thunder Downhome Democracy Tour proudly bear the SweatX label.) This "market of conscience" alone has a huge and virtually untapped potential--as Ferrari discovered, for example, unions buy a lot of T-shirts for rallies, organizing drives and such. After Oprah recently featured teamX on her show, the phones began ringing off the hook with orders, and Ferrari now expects this upstart startup to break even by July--an investment miracle by anyone's standards.

By tapping this growing market of conscience, SweatX not only can be successful but will put the lie to the garment industry's cynical assertion that low wages are an inevitable component of globalization. We can help by talking to our local organizations, clothing store managers, school board members and others, introducing them to the SweatX possibility (www.sweatx.net), showing with our dollars that commerce and conscience can cohabitate.

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