By  on May 2, 2007

NEW YORK — Immigrants and union members gathered in the heart of the Garment District here on Tuesday, calling for reforms of immigration policy and stronger measures to preserve industry jobs.

The rally, organized by UNITE HERE, which represents 400,000 workers in the textile, apparel, hotel and restaurant industries, coincided with International Workers Day and with marches and protests around the U.S. urging fewer deportations and legal status for an estimated 12 million people living and working in this country without proper documentation.

However, only about 100 workers and their supporters gathered at Seventh Avenue and 39th Street to take part in the rally. They were joined by union executives, politicians and actor and activist Danny Glover.

Edgar Romney, executive vice president of UNITE HERE, said immigrant workers were being "exploited and cheated" by employers. "Our members make the clothing that makes New York City the fashion capital of the world."

City Comptroller William C. Thompson Jr. stressed the need for immigration reform in Washington and a debate of the benefits immigration has brought. "We need to make sure...those in Washington know immigration is good," said Thompson, the grandson of immigrants.

Thompson also spoke of the need to protect fashion industry jobs, an effort that the industry has been losing for more than 20 years.

According to the Fashion Center Business Improvement District, apparel manufacturing and retailing jobs in Manhattan's 10018 zip code fell more than 44 percent, to 25,384 in 2004 from 45,537 in 1989. By the end of 2004, fashion-related jobs represented only 28.9 percent of the private sector industry operating in the district.

Bruce Raynor, UNITE HERE's general president, said the "biggest problem in New York City's garment industry is the rich real estate owners who want to push out our factories."

Manufacturing operations are being forced out to make way for law firms and corporate operations willing to pay higher rents, Raynor said, adding, "We call on the politicians of New York to support the workers of New York."

Bud Konheim, chief executive officer of Nicole Miller, said immigrants spurred the economy by coming here to work and spend. He noted that Henry Ford was criticized when he doubled his workers' wages. The result, Konheim said, didn't cause chaos in the labor market, but allowed workers to buy Ford cars.

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