‘CONSCIENCE’ DAY PLANNING IN GEAR
Byline: Arthur Friedman
NEW YORK — Even though the Labor Department currently is taking a less confrontational approach to battling sweatshops, the labor movement doesn’t plan to to follow suit.
Labor organizations like UNITE and the National Labor Committee will push their anti-sweatshop crusade next month when they hold a National Day of Conscience — which kicks off a series of holiday-season initiatives on the issue — and release a new book, both intended to educate the public about the reemergence of sweatshops in the Nineties.
The National Day of Conscience to End Sweatshops, set for Oct. 4, is sponsored by a coalition of religious, human rights, labor, government, student and women’s organizations. The day will be observed by actions in communities across the country.
Organizers are planning vigils, marches, interdenominational services, leafleting, music, demonstrations, ringing of church bells and street theater. On that day, the coalition will announce what it calls its Holiday Season of Conscience. It will release during the holiday shopping season a list of companies that it considers to have the worst record of human rights violations in their factories.
A spokeswoman for the NLC said a centerpiece of the day’s events will be a walk through midtown Manhattan, as well as demonstrations in over a dozen cities in the U.S. and Canada.
“We want to end sweatshops and child labor, and the best way to do this is through public pressure,” the NLC spokeswoman said. “Now that the President has called for a renewal of fast-track negotiating authority, we plan on pushing our position that any new trade pacts must include human rights provisions.”
She said the events are also aimed at influencing the White House Task Force to Eliminate Sweatshop Abuses to include independent monitoring of foreign factories in its mandate to establish industry-wide human rights standards for the first time. President Clinton has asked the task force to report to him with a final agreement by the end of the year.
The coalition also will stage a petition drive calling on Clinton to commit the government to ending child labor and sweatshops. The group plans to present one million signatures to Clinton in two stages — the day after Thanksgiving and the week before Christmas.
Industry groups have balked at organized labor’s call for independent monitoring of factories and feel the energy given to the demonstrations is wasted.
Morrison Cain, senior vice president of government affairs for the International Mass Retailers Association, said he questioned the motives of the NLC event, saying it was aimed at more than just educating the public about sweatshops.
“Many leading mass retailers have adopted uncompromising policies toward their contractors, which state that if a contractor is found to be in violation of labor law, that contractor is dropped,” Cain said. “The NLC wants to have the right to have their own people come in and do the inspecting. But then you have to ask who monitors the monitors and what is their agenda. It’s unfair to say, ‘Our way or no way,’ and that’s what the NLC wants.”
Echoing that sentiment was Robert Hall, vice president and international trade counsel of the National Retail Federation.
“The National Day of Conscience is a productive effort because it brings a public focus on the sweatshop issue,” Hall said. “Retailers don’t want to sell merchandise made in sweatshops, and most of them have taken steps to insure proper working conditions in the factories that produce for them.”
Hall said UNITE and the NLC deserve credit for heightening awareness of the sweatshop issue and helping raise standards in U.S. and foreign factories. But he also questions the underlying motives of the Day of Conscience because of its link to trade legislation issues and a “retailer blacklist” that the NLC plans to release during the holiday shopping period.
A spokeswoman for UNITE, a member of the coalition, said another key purpose of the day is to educate schoolchildren and prod their parents to take action on the sweatshop issue.
“Children are particularly sensitive to child-labor issues,” she said. “We’ve created a ‘No Sweat’ book cover that we’ll be distributing through the teachers’ unions.”
The coalition’s new book, “No Sweat: Fashion, Free Trade and the Rights of Garment Workers” (Verso, $19), is a collection of essays and articles chronicling the history of sweatshops and illegal sewing operations, and the issues that have caused their revival.
The concept for the book grew out of a conference organized by New York University’s American Studies Program, UNITE and The Nation magazine. The conference was held in March 1996, coinciding with the 85th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. That blaze, in a building now used by NYU, killed 146 immigrant women and was a decisive moment in the growth of the modern labor movement.
Edited by Andrew Ross, a professor and director of the American Studies Program, “No Sweat” includes commentary from workers, activists, labor lawyers, trade unionists, industry executives, journalists and academics. One of book’s aims is to show how matters of style are connected to labor issues, even though they might be considered to have no link.
The bulk of the book is devoted to direct commentary on labor conditions, and the building of campaigns and activist coalitions fighting the rise of sweatshops in the two decades since global sourcing became a modus operandi for most of the apparel industry.
Proceeds from the sale of the book will be used to fund the documentation of contemporary labor struggles. “No Sweat” is to be released Oct. 16.