Thousands of students around the country have been protesting US sweatshop practices in recent years. Such efforts, duly noted by mainstream media, serve to call public attention to long-neglected labor issues. But we hear far less about the tireless, courageous organizing and action by the sweatshop workers themselves, the vast majority of them women.
Sweatshop Warriors corrects our ignorance with a beautifully written account of their lives, struggles, lessons learned and lessons for all of us. The message is profound: A mass antisweatshop movement needs to be built from the bottom up, led by the workers themselves. That effort has a key role to play in the overall anti-corporate globalization movement today.
Miriam Louie's book is an in-depth study, packed with information, rich in social, political and economic analysis. She sees the sweatshop warriors in the context of recent US history, including the steady decline of unionization, longstanding racism within unions, the effects of deindustrialization and capitalist restructuring. At the same time, Sweatshop Warriors is totally alive, thanks to her drawing on hundreds of personal interviews for this book. The call to "Let the women themselves speak!" rings out in every chapter.
We can also thank Louie's own history as granddaughter and daughter of immigrant Asian workers (Chinese and Korean) as well as her thirty years in student, labor, women of color, Asian community and Third World solidarity organizations. That activism includes twelve years of service with Asian Immigrant Women Advocates (AIWA) in the Bay Area, plus media work for Latina workers, laid off by Levi's in San Antonio, who formed Fuerza Unida (United Force).
The book focuses on Chinese, Korean, Thai and Mexican women active in community-based workers' centers located in New York, El Paso, San Antonio, Oakland and Los Angeles. When noticed at all, these workers are usually seen as victims, not as the trailblazers they have become. "Tucked inside their weathered work jeans, double-knit pants, cleaning uniforms, cooking aprons and serving caps are continents and worlds of experience," Louie tells us. They live firsthand the globalization of sweatshop production, part of the process of global economic restructuring and its IMF/World Bank neoliberal mandates. This has made them whistleblowers on what she calls the sweatshop pyramid of exploitation. (The effects of globalization at what we might call "ground zero" can also be found in Disposable Domestics: Immigrant Women Workers in the Global Economy, by Grace Chang, and Doméstica: Immigrant Workers Cleaning and Caring in the Shadow of Affluence, by Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo.)
The workers have, for example, put a glaring spotlight on how subcontracting operates and how it can be that for a dress retailing at $100, only $1.72 ends up going to the sewer ($15 to the contractor). In fighting this system, AIWA waged a long, intense campaign to make fancy-dress manufacturer Jessica McClintock accept responsibility for meeting workers' payment demands when the subcontractor did not. Subcontracting has been especially brutal in the garment industry, but it operates in industries and services across the board. These include globalized industries like electronics, toys, shoes, plastics and auto parts, along with locally based sectors like healthcare, restaurants, construction, food processing and clerical work.