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.
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.