New York’s City Council is about to open a promising new front in the global struggle against sweatshop exploitation–a city procurement ordinance that requires decent wages and factory conditions for the apparel workers who make uniforms for New York’s finest. Mayor Giuliani huffily vetoed the measure, denouncing it as “socialist economics,” but since the Council passed it 39 to 5, a veto override is expected. New York City spends up to $70 million a year on uniforms for police, firefighters, sanitation, park and other employees. The city is a customer with clout.
The new ordinance was drafted and promoted by UNITE (Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees) with a unique feature–a global index for determining “nonpoverty” wage levels, country by country, based on objective economic data. The law would require any apparel manufacturer, domestic or foreign, to certify that its wages meet the standard–before the city will buy the company’s goods. “The city should not spend its citizens’ money in ways that shock the conscience of a vast majority,” the Council report declared.
What is more significant, however, is that New York’s initiative should reopen a path for local legislative activism on global issues. New York has created a model that city and state governments across the country can use to legislate their own procurement rules against sweatshop conditions. As of last year, the subject seemed closed. The Supreme Court nullified a Massachusetts law boycotting companies that do business with Burma, known for its brutal repression of workers and citizens. The Massachusetts statute was badly drawn and clearly suggested that Boston was trying to make foreign policy–power the Constitution gives to Washington. The New York ordinance has been cast to avoid those flaws, though it will certainly be challenged in court (Mayor Giuliani promised to lead the attack).
“The apparel industry has become a global factory where there are no standards,” says Steven Weingarten, UNITE’s director of industrial development. “This bill connects the customer with standards for decent conditions and a decent wage. The uniformed unions–police, firefighters and others–are very supportive. To wear uniforms made by people in sweatshop conditions is not what they want to stand for. There are 80,000 apparel workers in New York City, and it should at least stop rewarding the irresponsible manufacturers, both in the United States and abroad.”
The principal mechanism for enforcement is disclosure. To complete a sale, a company must certify where the goods were made, including locations of subcontractors, and that it is producing as a “responsible manufacturer”–that is, complying with relevant wage, health, environmental and safety laws, not abusing or discriminating against employees and providing the nonpoverty wage determined by national economic context. If a company files a false report and violates the standards, it could be fined or barred from contracting with the city or sued for civil damages. The reporting system opens the door for citizens to submit facts, and the companies must permit independent monitoring of their factories if city officials request it.
Professor Mark Barenberg of Columbia Law School, chairman of the governing board of the Worker Rights Consortium, believes UNITE’s draft legislation is immune to any accusation that New York City is poaching on federal territory, either the regulation of interstate commerce or the executive branch’s exclusive domain of foreign relations. Among its flaws, Massachusetts’ Burma law targeted a single country with the goal of forcing policy changes, and the boycott rule attempted to hold US corporations responsible for a foreign government’s actions. In the New York legislation, the terms apply to any seller of apparel, regardless of location, and involve issues that are already accepted in state-local procurement laws (though not usually applied to foreign production). Under the interstate commerce clause, cities and states are forbidden to discriminate against other states by targeting their producers with anticompetitive restrictions. But, Barenberg explains, “when a city or state acts like a consumer–a market participant itself–it can discriminate in the ways any consumer does.”
If a city decides its citizens are offended by abusive working conditions or exploitative wages by producers outside its jurisdiction, it cannot enact a law to stop them, but it can refuse to buy their goods. “It would be a radical act of the Supreme Court to overrule the ‘market participant’ doctrine and say states and cities may not choose to reject products from foreign countries because they don’t want to buy from sweatshops,” Barenberg observes.
Of course, the Rehnquist Supreme Court has demonstrated that it is fully capable of “radical acts” in pursuit of right-wing results. Among its various rationales, the Court might declare that while the New York ordinance alone does not damage constitutional balance, the prospect of scores or hundreds of communities enacting similar measures would be intolerable. In the meantime, however, widespread agitation from the grassroots is precisely what’s needed to build a fire under the seat of government in Washington. That’s how democracy was supposed to work–let the Supremes analyze that.