The Labor History of a Gap Sweatshirt
Only hours into the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) national conference in Chicago--before half of the participants had even arrived--students were walking the picket line in s
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On May 8 twenty-three jubilant, grubby Harvard students left the offices of university president Neil Rudenstine after a twenty-one-day sit-in, the longest in Harvard's history. The students had demanded that the university pay its workers what the City of Cambridge had determined was a living wage--now the minimum for all municipal employees--$10.25 an hour. A university committee had ruled against a similar proposal a year earlier, but this time, after the sit-in drew three weeks of coverage critical of the university in the local and national media, the administrators gave ground, agreeing to reopen serious discussion.
Several commentators pointed out the incongruity of privileged Ivy Leaguers taking up such a blue-collar cause, but what the coverage often missed was that the Harvard sit-in was part of a growing movement on US campuses emerging from a burgeoning alliance between student activists and organized labor.
A significant factor in the Harvard students' victory was the support of local and national unions. The carpenters' local and the Boston office of the progressive, union-backed group Jobs With Justice organized a community march in support of the students. The dining-hall workers' union, itself in the middle of contract negotiations, listed amnesty for the student protesters among its demands and twice held rallies outside the president's office. In the last week of the sit-in, AFL-CIO leaders, including president John Sweeney, staged a 1,500-person rally at Harvard, and AFL-CIO lawyers helped shape the students' final agreement with the administration.
Across the country, according to Jobs With Justice, living-wage campaigns are now active on at least twenty-one college campuses, and those at Wesleyan and the University of Wisconsin/Madison have already claimed victories. Meanwhile, students elsewhere are working on related campus labor issues, like outsourcing, benefits and organizing nonunion workers--not to mention the catalyzing cause of sweatshops.
The AFL-CIO's student outreach program, Union Summer, has played a key role in turning simmering concerns on campus about sweatshops, globalization, the decline in real wages and the growing gap between rich and poor into effective campaigns. Union Summer, which was part of Sweeney's platform when he was campaigning for the AFL-CIO presidency in 1995, gives 200 interns--mostly, but not exclusively, college students--a small stipend and a few days' training in labor history and organizing, and then sends them out for monthlong stints with labor campaigns around the country.
After a month talking with people who work twelve-hour swing shifts and support a family on $6.50 an hour, the students often feel that returning to sheltered college life is no longer an option. "It was a transformative experience for me," says Dan Hennefeld, a Harvard graduate who's now employed by the garment and textile workers union, UNITE, and who attended the first Union Summer in 1996, after his freshman year. "It made me want to be in the labor movement," he says. When Hennefeld got back to Harvard that fall, he helped start a group called the Progressive Student Labor Movement, which became the driving force behind the recent sit-in (three of the organizers were also Union Summer grads).
The nearly 2,000 graduates of Union Summer have played a major role in spreading awareness of labor issues on campus. In addition to those at Harvard, student labor leaders at Duke, Brown, Georgetown and the universities of Tennessee, Connecticut and Wisconsin are all Summer alums. To make room for an increasing number of applicants, the AFL-CIO is offering three specialized, ten-week internships this summer: Seminary Summer for future religious leaders (mostly seminarians, novices and rabbinical students), Law Student Union Summer and International Union Summer, now in its second year, which places a few college students in organizing campaigns in such countries as Egypt, Mexico and Sri Lanka.
During their brief stints the interns are schooled in organizing techniques and tactics. "I'm blown away by how smart and focused the student leaders today are," says Paul Booth, currently assistant to the president of AFSCME and one of the writers of the 1962 Port Huron Statement of the Students for a Democratic Society. And, he adds, they've taken to heart an essential principle of today's campus activism: organizing campaigns around the school itself. Students understand, Booth says, that "they ought to be getting the institutions they relate to to do things that are meaningful."
Says Harvard's Hennefeld, "We realized early on that we wanted to focus on Harvard and the way it fits into labor issues. That potentially made the most sense to students, and it seemed the most effective use of whatever power we had." As on many campuses, this school-focused work quickly centered around their colleges' connection to overseas sweatshops, where underpaid workers turn out the sweatshirts the students wear to advertise their privileged status. These targeted antisweatshop campaigns have so far convinced seventy-eight colleges to join the Workers' Rights Consortium, the strictest of the independent groups that monitor conditions under which university garments are made.
For many antisweat student activists, the transition to campus labor issues seemed only natural. "While we were doing our antisweat work, we talked to a lot of people who said, You've got to look at what's going on here. It would be hypocritical not to," says Becky Maran, one of the leaders of UConn's successful wage campaign. "With the energy and momentum from winning [the antisweatshop] campaign, we felt we had the strength to move on."
Students' domestic labor campaigns have taken a variety of forms. At the universities of Pittsburgh and Utah, student labor groups have latched on to pre-existing citywide living-wage campaigns. At Harvard and Johns Hopkins, located in cities that had already adopted a living wage, student campaigns have focused on pressuring their administrations to adopt the city's wage floor. And at the University of Tennessee, where "right to work" laws make a living wage at best a distant goal, labor campaigns have used the mere idea of a living wage to encourage workers to organize. Recent UT graduate Anna Avato, now an AFL-CIO organizer, says that after a media campaign was launched, "Workers were calling us and saying they wanted a meeting. By the end of the week, we had 150 workers at our first action." Within a year, the UT campus workers had formed an independent union, put an end to forced overtime and, in May, fended off a subcontracting threat.
On many campuses, activism that started as a living-wage struggle has spiraled off in other directions. Harvard students, with their newly strengthened ties to campus labor, are helping out with upcoming contract negotiations and continuing to organize among those janitors and dining hall workers still without a union. At Wesleyan, where a union wage fight for campus janitors was won a year ago, students have spent the past year working with the bus drivers of Middletown public schools to pass a Middletown living-wage ordinance. At Johns Hopkins, where a seventeen-day sit-in in March 2000 convinced the administration to pay its workers a living wage a year earlier than planned, students have been working on a half-dozen campaigns, allying themselves with locals of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE), UNITE, the service employees' union (SEIU) and ACORN, a grassroots organizing group. At UT, with the independent campus workers' union up and running, students have taken a back seat to the workers themselves, helping to recruit new members and keeping up the pressure on the administration.
No matter what economic justice issue these campus efforts focus on, the thread that ties them together is their collaboration with labor. Encouraged by the students' successful campaigns, their enthusiasm and their ability to attract media attention, local and national unions are showing increased interest in working with student groups. UNITE pledged $25,000 to United Students Against Sweatshops to get it started in 1997 and continues to collaborate with USAS on ways to expand antisweat work. Jobs With Justice has joined the progressive United States Students' Association to form the Student Labor Action Project, which advises campus labor campaigns across the country and puts them in touch with local unions. And SEIU is planning an effort to bring young organizers, SEIU staff and student leaders together for discussions about how to reach out to more students.
Campus leaders, for their part, are eager to learn from the organizing experience of their union partners, as well as to get involved in real-world struggles for economic fairness. While such collaborations can be tricky--neither the student movement nor organized labor wants to give up its independence--both students and labor recognize the potential benefits. Dan DiMaggio, a Harvard freshman who participated in the sit-in, says that it "definitely galvanized workers. We went to a union negotiation the other night, and they gave us a standing ovation as they were about to receive their final offer." He adds, "The unions are very receptive to this idea of working together, and if the unions work together, that's pretty serious. If the unions and the students work together, that's pretty serious too."
For God, country and the ruling class.
For the first few months of this year, it looked like Hollywood's unionized writers and actors were about to premiere a new labor strategy. As their conglomerate employers raked in record profits from expanding Internet, cable, foreign, video and DVD markets, the writers and actors guilds were talking about staging a fight to win long-deferred increases in residual payments for work that's reused and resold in different media.
With their film and TV contracts expiring back to back, the supposedly militant leadership of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) spoke of ushering in a new era of pay equity, while producers, the networks and studios braced for a historic Tinseltown strike. The AFL-CIO, meanwhile, came to town ready to advise and support the Hollywood unions in their looming titanic confrontation with the entertainment giants.
But instead of debuting a dramatic breakthrough, it now seems that this season's Hollywood labor push is ending in another dreary rerun of business-as-usual back-room deals. After weeks of on-again, off-again closed-door talks, the WGA reached a three-year agreement with employers on May 4, two days after the contract ran out. And though the deal is being presented to the membership (who must ratify it in early June) as a significant wedge of the economic pie, it is in reality a pretty thin slice. The writers won no increase in video or DVD residuals and failed to achieve the exclusive union jurisdiction over Internet production they sought. No additional residuals were won for material resold to cable. Regarding cable, they won a first-time but modest residual for premium services only. And residual increases for foreign sales will benefit only writers on the most profitable shows. Strengthened "creative rights" were won, but the economic tally is meager. On an industrywide scale, writers' residuals will increase about 2 percent.
After so much heat, why such a paltry settlement? "It was collective bargaining without the collective," says a longtime observer close to the negotiations. At a time when their employers have radically restructured themselves on the most sophisticated mega-merger global scale, the traditionally parochial and insular Hollywood guilds seemed incapable of making the transition to a modern and effective labor movement. The WGA neither mobilized nor engaged its membership in a credible campaign against the producers. How could it when it carried out its negotiations under an official "blackout" that kept not only the media but its own rank and file in the dark?
Instead of reaching out to build new alliances with "below the line" technical and craft unions, it alienated them. Instead of relying on an industrywide movement to wring concessions from the producers, the guild put forward a corporate-molded negotiating team much more experienced in managing studio employees than in representing them. Worst of all, the WGA faked itself out of a better deal. By threatening a strike it was unwilling to prepare for, it converted the possible stoppage into a lethal management weapon, with the studio execs, producers flacks and even the conservative mayor of Los Angeles enthusiastically branding any shutdown a certain economic Götterdämmerung for the strikers.
The actors union, whose contract expires July 1, began its round of talks in mid-May. It's pretty much a foregone conclusion that SAG will now settle--and settle short. The actors have formally shut down even the pretense of a membership contract campaign and have, like the WGA, imposed their own information blackout on the negotiations. That's not all the two guilds have in common. SAG's relatively new Hollywood leadership talks a tough populist line, but it has little interest or experience in doing the hard work of effective organizing and mobilization. The AFL-CIO is quietly packing up its local support operation, sensing that SAG has no stomach for a real fight.
A historic opportunity to bring Hollywood's professional and craft unions together in a powerful new alliance has thus been postponed, if not lost, and just at a time when industry restructuring makes such unity an iron imperative. Instead, there's already an incipient whisper campaign under way, with writers and actors scapegoating each other's unions for producing such disappointing results. Here it is better to quote not Spielberg but Shakespeare: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,/ But in ourselves...."
About every thirty years for the last one hundred, a crusading journalist somewhere has gotten the same idea: Abandon the middle-class literary life (for a brief period), get a real job, gain firsthand experience in the underclass, go home and write it up.
Not surprisingly, most practitioners of the genre have been left-wing whistleblowers--notably, Jack London and George Orwell. London's 1902 book People of the Abyss chronicled the misery of urban and agricultural workers, plus the unemployed, in turn-of-the-century England. "Work as they will," he discovered, "wage-earners cannot make their future secure. It is all a matter of chance. Everything depends upon the thing happening, the thing about which they can do nothing. Precaution cannot fend it off, nor can wiles evade it."
Already a renowned writer, London entered this new world of poverty and insecurity "with an attitude of mind which I may best liken to that of an explorer." Orwell's expedition, at the time of the Great Depression, followed in London's footsteps in the same East End neighborhoods, later ending up in Paris. Published in 1933 as an autobiographical novel, Down and Out in Paris and London records the author's experiences toiling under terrible conditions as a plongeur, or restaurant dishwasher, in the bowels of a great Paris hotel. In both cities, Orwell's narrator struggles to make ends meet--just like his co-workers and fellow tenement dwellers.
A plongeur is better off than many manual workers, but still, he is no freer than if he were bought and sold. His work is servile and without art; he is paid just enough to keep him alive; his only holiday is the sack. Except by a lucky chance, he has no escape from this life, save into prison. If plongeurs thought at all, they would strike for better treatment. But they do not think; they have no leisure for it.
T hree decades later, on the eve of the civil rights revolution in the United States, journalist John Howard Griffin was down and out in Dixie. His book, Black Like Me, featured the additional twist of an author trying to cross both class and racial lines. To find out, as a white, what it was like for African-Americans to live and work in the segregated South, the author darkened his skin and traveled about in the guise of what was then called (appropriately enough for Griffin) a "colored" person. Black Like Me had a great impact at the time because of the novelty of the author's assumed identity and the book's shocking (for many whites) account of the routine indignities and monstrous injustice of apartheid in America.
It took far less makeup for Barbara Ehrenreich, the well-known socialist and feminist, author and columnist, to "pass" among the mainly white working-class people she met while researching Nickel and Dimed. Between 1998 and 2000, she took jobs as a waitress and hotel maid in Florida, a nursing-home aide and a house cleaner in Maine, and a retail sales clerk in Minnesota. Her trip across the class divide did require that she temporarily leave behind most of the accoutrements of her normal existence--home ownership, social connections, professional status, "the variety and drama of my real, Barbara Ehrenreich life."
Retaining, as her private safety net, credit cards (to be used only in emergencies) and a series of "Rent-a-Wrecks" to make job-hunting easier, she set out to determine how a person with every advantage of "ethnicity and education, health and motivation" might fare in the "economy's lower depths" in "a time of exuberant prosperity."
Her attempt to "match income to expenses" on the $6-$8 an hour wages of the working poor succeeds only briefly, though--and then just barely--in Portland, Maine, where she is able to juggle two jobs at once. Like Orwell living in Left Bank penury in Paris, she quickly becomes obsessed with counting her pennies and staying within a daily budget that does not allow for any splurges or unexpected financial adversity. Unlike the hundreds of thousands of single mothers with children who've been dumped into the job market by "welfare reform," she doesn't have to worry about finding and paying for childcare while holding down a draining, low-income job (or two). Nevertheless, she ends up being defeated by the same fundamental obstacle they face: Despite much hard work, "many people earn far less than they need to live on."
"How much is that?" she asks. "The Economic Policy Institute recently reviewed dozens of studies of what constitutes a 'living wage' and came up with the figure of $30,000 a year for a family of one adult and two children, which amounts to a wage of $14 an hour." The problem is that "the majority of American workers, about 60 percent, earn less than $14 an hour," while 30 percent, according to the EPI, made $8 an hour or less when Ehrenreich joined their ranks in 1998.
At each stop on her low-wage tour, the author tests out local support services for the working poor. Not surprisingly, the things that people need most to make their lives better--health coverage, affordable housing and access to mass transit--aren't available at the agencies she visits. (Instead, she gets the occasional bag of free groceries, plus referrals for apartment rentals she can't afford.) She finds that many of her co-workers--particularly those without family support networks--lack sufficient funds for the rental deposits and one month's advance rent needed to acquire an apartment. As a result, they are forced into overcrowded, ripoff lodging arrangements at seedy residential motels, which charge by the day or week. Even trailer-park living, which Ehrenreich tried in Key West, is now prohibitively expensive in tighter local housing markets. The nation's widespread deficiencies in public transportation also limit workers' options about where they can live--and work--if they don't own a car.
Many low-end employers don't offer health insurance, of course. Even when they do, workers in places like Wal-Mart often can't afford the payroll deductions required for family or even individual coverage when their starting pay is only $7 an hour (rising to $7.75 after two years in the Minneapolis store where Ehrenreich worked). The resulting lack of preventive medical and dental care leads to a cycle of daily discomfort and, sometimes, life-threatening deprivation. The work that Ehrenreich describes in painful detail--scrubbing floors, waiting on tables, lifting Alzheimer's patients--is hard on the body. Years of it breeds myriad aches and pains, injuries and allergic reactions, which, left untreated, become a never-ending source of misery, not to mention missed work, lost income and potentially ruinous bills. As Ehrenreich notes, she held up as well as she did in several of her jobs only because she hadn't been doing them for long; without her personal history of regular exercise, proper diet and medical care, a woman her age (late 50s) would have been struggling to stay on her feet all day as a Merry Maid or Wal-Mart sales clerk.
What makes Nickel and Dimed so engaging, however, is not its tutorial on the economics and ergonomics of low-wage life and work. Rather, it is the author's insights into the labor process in the retail and service sectors, and into workplace power relationships. If Wal-Mart had been around in Orwell's era and he, rather than Ehrenreich, had worked there, he would have written 1984 much sooner. The private empire created by Arkansas billionaire Sam Walton boasts both a Big Brother figure--the late "Mr. Sam" himself--and a work force of "proles" (now 825,000 strong) whose docility, devotion and nonunion status are major corporate preoccupations. Entering this "closed system," replete with its own "newspeak" and "doublethink," Ehrenreich discovers that all the workers, like herself, are "associates," all the customers "guests," and the store supervisors "servant leaders."
One of management's top priorities, she learns, is eradicating "time-theft"--a crime most often committed by associates who violate Wal-Mart's strictly enforced "no-talk" rule, linger on their smoke breaks or otherwise dally in the never-ending task of stocking, straightening and restocking shelves. Potential malingerers (and others with rebel tendencies) are ferreted out during the prehire process of personality screening and drug testing. Once you're on the job, close surveillance by "servant leaders" and continuing "education"--via taped messages and training videos featuring Mr. Sam--are a constant feature of company life. To leaven this atmosphere of brainwashing and intimidation, "team meetings" for associates often end with a special "Wal-Mart cheer"--a morale-boosting device personally imported from Japan by the founder himself.
Given the widespread existence of such demeaning conditions and "the dominant corporate miserliness," why don't the wretched of this low-wage world revolt? What's holding them back? Nickel and Dimed offers several explanations for the absence of collective action: high job turn-over among the unskilled, their low self-esteem, the universal fear of being fired for speaking out or challenging management authority and, in some cases, actual workeridentification with corporate values or individual bosses. Even with a background quite different from that of her fellow restaurant workers, Ehrenreich finds herself being affected by the culture of low-wage work in ways that she doesn't like:
Something new--something loathsome and servile--had infected me, along with the kitchen odors that I could still sniff on my bra when I finally undressed at night. In real life I am moderately brave, but plenty of brave people shed their courage in POW camps, and maybe something similar goes on in the infinitely more congenial milieu of the low-wage American workplace.
In the course of the book, after much buffeting by rude customers, abusive supervisors and unreliable co-workers, a kind of working-class alter ego of the author emerges--the "Barb" of her Wal-Mart ID who "is not exactly the same person as Barbara" (nor as sympathetic):
"Barb" is what I was called as a child, and still by my siblings, and I sense that at some level I'm regressing. Take away the career and the higher education, and maybe what you're left with is this original Barb, the one who might have ended up working at Wal-Mart for real if her father hadn't managed to climb out of the mines. So it's interesting, and more than a little disturbing, to see how Barb turned out--that she's meaner and slyer than I am, more cherishing of grudges, and not quite as smart as I'd hoped.
The author sounds more like her usual self when, as a house cleaner for Merry Maids--the McDonald's of its industry--she is forced "to meet the aesthetic standards of the New England bourgeoisie" down on her hands and knees, with a scrub brush. A particularly obnoxious client, the owner of a million-dollar condo on the coast of Maine, takes Ehrenreich into the master bathroom whose marble walls have been "bleeding" onto the brass fixtures--a problem she wants Ehrenreich to address by scrubbing the grouting "extra hard."
That's not your marble bleeding, I want to tell her, it's the worldwide working class--the people who quarried the marble, wove your Persian rugs until they went blind, harvested the apples in your lovely fall-themed dining room centerpiece, smelted the steel for the nails, drove the trucks, put up this building, and now bend and squat and sweat to clean it.
Unable to deliver this political tirade--lest she blow her cover--Ehrenreich instead fantasizes about exacting revenge similar to that witnessed and described so memorably by Orwell in Down and Out (i.e., the disgruntled cook who spat in the soup, the waiters who put their dirty fingers in the gravy, etc.). "All I would have to do," she muses angrily in a gorgeous country house, "is take one of the E. coli-rich rags that's been used on the toilets and use it to 'clean' the kitchen counters." No one, she concludes, should be asked to wipe out someone else's "shit-stained" bathroom bowl or gather up the pubic hairs found in their "shower stalls, bath tubs, jacuzzis, drains, and even, unaccountably, in sinks."
Ehrenreich has long been a rarity on the left--a radical writer with great wit and a highly accessible style. While often sad and grim, Nickel and Dimed is nevertheless sprinkled with the author's trademark humor. She is, for example, frequently struck by the oddity of her circumstances. Sitting alone in a cheap motel, eating takeout food after a hard day at Wal-Mart, she watches an episode of Survivor. "Who are these nutcases who would volunteer for an artificially daunting situation in order to entertain millions of strangers with their half-assed efforts to survive? Then I remember where I am and why I am here."
Half-assed as her attempts to learn unfamiliar jobs may have been--and as funny as she sometimes makes the experience seem--Ehrenreich is still engaged in a serious project. Nickel and Dimed may not be prime-time fare for millions. Yet, hopefully, it will still reach enough readers to expand public awareness of the real-world survival struggles that many Americans faced even before the current economic downturn. If anything, this book should command greater attention now because the life of the working poor--never easy in good times--is about to get harder in ways we'll never see on "reality TV."