Rage Against The Machine

November 1999 - Alex Zwerdling

My name is Alex Zwerdling. I am 21 years old, a senior at Middlebury College in Vermont, and an anti-sweatshop activist working with United Students Against Sweatshops. It is exciting to have the opportunity to share my participation in the anti-sweatshop movement. However, there are two groups of people who are worthy of more recognition than any one individual.

First, sweatshop (or maquila) workers throughout the world deserve praise for their struggle and their courage. Today, millions of sweatshop workers worldwide, including an estimated 400,000 in the United States, are making the clothing and footwear we wear everyday. Shockingly, it is likely that most everything that you are wearing right now was made in a sweatshop - in China or Burma, El Salvador or Manhattan, Indonesia or Nicaragua or Mexico. The workers sewing our garments are toiling under unthinkably brutal conditions: arriving at the factory before 7 AM, leaving after 7 PM or later in many cases; earning starvation wages so low that they must raise their children on coffee because they can't afford milk; facing verbal, physical, and sexual harassment and abuse from their supervisors; being fired for trying to organize a union or informing their co-workers of their rights. But the strength and determination of sweatshop workers is heroic and inspirational; despite seemingly insurmountable odds and almost certain firings and abuse, these workers - the vast majority young girls and young single mothers - continue to courageously fight for their right to organize unions, to improve their working conditions, and to bring justice to the workplace.

The second group that deserves recognition is United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), a coalition of college and high school students working within the wider anti-sweatshop movement. Active on more than 200 campuses throughout the U.S. and Canada, USAS is demanding that our colleges and universities require the manufacturers of our college clothing meet ethical labor standards. Among these standards:

  • The payment of a living wage to workers, so that the basic needs of the workers and their families are covered.
  • Full public disclosure of factory locations, because workplace abuses thrive where hidden.
  • Complying with workers right to organize a union, so that workers can act collectively against exploitation at factories.
  • Ensuring the rights of women in the factory, so that women working in the factory are no longer subject to forced birth control, obligatory pregnancy tests, and sexual harassment and abuse.
  • External and independent monitoring, as opposed to corporate-controlled monitoring of workplace conditions.

USAS has won several victories on campuses around the country, as more than a dozen schools have signed codes of conduct, requiring their apparel manufacturers to meet these standards. USAS works more than on campus, however, and our on the ground activism is beginning to have positive impact on the garment industry.

This summer I traveled to El Salvador with other students from USAS and members of the National Labor Committee (NLC), a workers rights organization based in New York City. We spent much of our time meeting workers and their families, touring their neighborhoods, visiting their homes, and hearing stories of the abuse they faced in garment factories. We met several workers from a factory called Caribbean Apparel, an enormous complex that produces garments for the Kathie Lee clothing line, sold at Wal-Mart. The workers told us that at Caribbean Apparel they make 60 cents an hour and work six days a week, 11 hours a day. Production lines in the factory produce 2,000 pieces of Kathie Lee garments every day. Workers get no sick pay and their bathroom visits are restricted and monitored. Every new employee must pay for a mandatory pregnancy test, and if the results are positive they are fired immediately.

The workers we met with in El Salvador were attempting to organize a union in Caribbean Apparel. However, soon after we left the country, their efforts were discovered, and they were fired from the factory, leaving them with no source of income for their families. A 25 year-old union organizers, Jiovanni Fuentes, who were assisting the workers in their unionization effort received two death threats.

It is important to note two things: first, the Salvadoran constitution guarantees the right of workers to organize a union and bargain collectively. Caribbean Apparel, Wal Mart, and Kathie Lee are acting in clear violation of workers rights through the firings; second, three years ago, Kathie Lee Gifford, they clothing line's namesake was discovered to be producing clothing in sweatshops in Honduras. At that time, she pledged to help end sweatshop abuses in her factories. Three years later, we uncovered more Kathie Lee sweatshops.

This story is indicative of the corporate agenda. Throw the workers and the activists a bone, say you're going to change your labor practices, yet the abuses continue. USAS was angry - our Salvadoran friends had been fired and threatened. And Kathie Lee Gifford and Wal-Mart had lied.

It is time for action. We can no longer allow this aggression against workers go unchecked. The NLC flew two of the workers and Jiovanni, the organizer, to New York City and Washington, DC to meet with labor leaders, students, and Members of Congress to talk about the abuses. The demanded meetings with Kathie Lee Gifford and David Glass, the CEO of Wal-Mart. Neither Ms. Gifford nor Mr. Glass met with the workers. Students called on Kathie Lee and Wal-Mart to give the workers their jobs back and to ensure the safety of Jiovanni. These requests went unanswered.

Here in Vermont, angered by their dismissive attitude we took direct action to educate consumers about these abuses and to pressure Kathie Lee and Wal-Mart to reconsider their position. On September 27, two dozen anti-sweatshop activists from Middlebury College and the University of Vermont descended on the Wal-Mart in Williston, Vermont. Carrying banners and signs decrying Kathie Lee's sweatshops, we entered the store, draped a black sheet over the Kathie Lee apparel carts to symbolize the lack of transparency in the garment industry and to remind shoppers of the death threats against Jiovanni. Silently, we staged a sit-in in the apparel section of the store, demanding that the store manager relay our concerns to Wal-Mart executives. With negotiations going sour, it was time to take stronger action. An activist from Middlebury, sophomore Cori Loew, highjacked the store's public address system and began reading our demand over the loud speaker until security shut the PA system down.

We were kicked out of the store soon after. But this story of corporate greed reached several hundred shoppers, the vast majority of whom told us that they were shocked by this story and supportive of the workers struggles. Our demands were heard. And our action is not isolated. Displays of solidarity like this one took place in Arkansas, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere. And on the ground in Salvador, student-worker solidarity is having an impact. We have received recent reports from San Salvador that the unthinkable is happening: the Salvadoran Ministry of Labor is negotiating with Kathie Lee's Caribbean Apparel contractor on behalf of these workers, an unprecedented event.

Young labor activists from USAS are helping to empower sweatshop workers and open up a secretive industry. But the struggle continues. If you would like to help, contact United Students Against Sweatshops at (202) 667-9328 [(202) NO-SWEAT] or contact me at zwerdlin@jaguar.middlebury.edu.

In Solidarity,

Alex Zwerdling