LABOR SECRETARY ALEXIS HERMAN
A NEW ANTI-SWEATSHOP STRATEGY
Byline: Joanna Ramey
WASHINGTON — Labor Secretary Alexis Herman has tamed the agency’s anti-sweatshop publicity dogs.
It’s a decided departure from the pit bull tactics of her press-conscious predecessor, Robert Reich.
Among signs of change are two recent meetings between California apparel makers and Labor officials held in an effort to improve relations. Retailers have also noticed a thawing, with some companies accepting Labor’s overtures to quietly share information about suppliers suspected by the agency of dealing with sweatshops.
And in a show of mutual cooperation, agency officials have abstained from the practice of naming stores in the media that were found to have sold sweatshop-made apparel, a policy that’s at odds with what occurred during Reich’s four years of doing battle with the fashion industry.
Reich’s sweatshop strategy was rooted in using publicity as a prod to get image-conscious apparel makers and retailers to take more responsibility over working conditions and wages at the nation’s estimated 28,000 garment contractors.
Even after his departure and the exit of his leading anti-sweatshop strategist, Wage and Hour Administrator Maria Echaveste, the agency’s remaining political appointees were gearing up to keep the heat on the industry and engage consumers to press stores and manufacturers to change, according to sources.
But when Herman took office in May, her keep-it-out-of-the-media conciliatory style took hold of the agency’s agenda, which the industry has greeted as a much-needed cooling off.
“I find Secretary Herman to be genuinely interested in improving relations with apparel manufacturers in order to resolve the sweatshop issue and labor violations,” said Maurice Marciano, chairman and ceo of Guess jeans, whose Los Angeles-based company was often at odds with Labor officials under Reich over how it monitors its Southern California garment contractors.
“Robert Reich’s office was really felt by all the industry as being antagonistic and confrontational. Everybody had the feeling it was more a matter for them to use the stick, rather than try to reach out and really work together,” Marciano said.
Herman’s anti-sweatshop approach also seems to be keeping organized labor happy. It’s a balancing act for which she recently received praise in convincing striking Teamsters and United Parcel Service management to stay at the bargaining table to end the union’s walkout.
“I met with Alexis Herman soon after she was confirmed, and she indicated she was going to continue the sweatshop issue diligently,” said Jay Mazur, president of the apparel and textile union UNITE. “If people perceive a difference, it’s probably more style. I’m not willing to question her style because she just got there. It took Bob Reich a year to get off the ground.”
While Herman, who has been traveling recently, was not available for comment for this article, agency officials, while acknowledging Herman’s style is more low key than Reich’s, say there hasn’t been an edict from the secretary to switch sweatshop strategies. Rather, they say it’s more an issue of the initiative evolving into a more cooperative relationship with the apparel industry, a change they say has benefited from Herman’s more behind-the-scenes way of doing business. They also point out that she’s still new on the job.
They do acknowledge that there is a new era of what the agency calls “partnership,” but they add it doesn’t mean Labor is swearing off ever using publicity again to intimidate the industry into action. If anything, agency officials say, any perceived public relations lull can be pinned to the fact there hasn’t been anything like a Kathie Lee Gifford sweatshop scandal or the discovery of virtually enslaved Thai garment workers in El Monte, Calif., to give them a springboard from which they can react.
Suzanne Seiden, acting deputy administrator for the Wage and Hour Division, said in an interview that while the agency has worked to forge a tighter bond with industry, there has been no agreement to back off from issuing negative publicity about companies in exchange for cooperation.
“I don’t think anyone here views us as reducing heat or pressure,” Seiden said. “We’re taking the program to another level. We’re focusing on partnerships.”
Regardless, even if there were another discovery like two years ago in El Monte, sources say that Herman would likely use the event as a call to rally industry support for change and not as an opportunity to publicly condemn industry practices. Reich did both.
California apparel makers first got a glimpse of Herman’s style at a July 10 meeting called by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.). The manufacturers, including Guess’s Marciano, wanted to air frustrations about Reich’s anti-sweatshop strategies.
They told Herman these policies have targeted legitimate companies and largely ignored a flourishing underground apparel industry in the state. They asked the agency to stop routinely tattling to retailers about manufacturers whose contractors are found guilty of just slight infractions. In exchange, they said they would help to point Labor gumshoes in the direction of known sweatshops and to maintain an open-door policy of inspection of their own contractors.
These manufacturers maintain they’ve earned the right to be cut a break since their contractors are now monitored. Furthermore, they say they’ve proven worthy by showing their willingness to rectify conditions at contractors caught underpaying workers. Underpayment, they say, can still happen even at monitored shops, either by contractors devising new unscrupulous bookkeeping techniques or just the result of oversights in computing wages based on piecework.
“Many of these instances are small mistakes, like $2,000. When you’re running a 50-machine shop, that’s like having a typo in the newspaper,” said Vera Campbell, president, Design Zone/Knitworks, a Los Angeles-based women’s wear manufacturer.
“We told the secretary the agency has been hurting a lot of legitimate businesses that have been doing the right thing by monitoring,” said Ron Perilman, president and ceo, City Girls, Vernon, Calif. “Some places still need to be raided. But the agency puts these companies in the same league with me. My business has been around for 51 years. That’s ridiculous.”
In response, Herman said Labor’s sweatshop enforcement practices would be examined, particularly to the extent they may discourage increasing or maintaining apparel manufacturing in the U.S. by driving companies out of business or offshore.
“You need to be able to grow your business,” Herman told the group, according to those at the meeting.
Manufacturers were also heartened to hear Herman express her distaste for “organizational surprises,” a comment made in relation to publicizing manufacturers’ names in connection to contractor violations before first notifying the company.
Herman otherwise made no concrete commitments about changes, like whether the agency’s quarterly enforcement report naming manufacturers who use violating contractors will be eliminated or recast to reflect only egregious sweatshop cases. Seiden said industry concerns are being weighed, but agency officials still find the enforcement report useful in engaging retailers on the sweatshop issue.
Seiden said another Reich publicity tactic, the Trendsetter List, is also expected to continue. The list was devised as a Christmas season, where-to-shop guide for consumers interested in patronizing stores and manufacturers deemed by Labor as having outstanding anti-sweatshop buying practices. Like the enforcement report, the list is still included on the agency’s Internet site for public perusal.
Its use, in particular, angered retailers, many of whom repeatedly shunned Reich’s admonitions to aspire to the list by riding herd over their suppliers and monitoring contractors producing private label apparel. Instead, most stores responded by trumpeting their own anti-sweatshop policies, primarily guidelines for manufacturers telling them not to use sweatshops or they would be dropped as a resource.
This in turn further angered Reich and his staff, who felt stores are legally culpable for supplier working conditions. In response to the lack of cooperation, Labor officials leaked to newspapers names of retailers linked to law-breaking garment contractors.
“We don’t want to be told, ‘This is how you do it,”‘ said Steve Pfister, director of political affairs, National Retail Federation, who’s noticed a distinct relaxing of relations between the industry and Labor under Herman. The first sign came when, soon after taking office, Herman called NRF president Tracy Mullin to express interest in working with retailers on the sweatshop issue.
“I think the secretary wanted to send a positive signal that she was starting a new dialog, in a new direction, and that she is not Robert Reich and she will take a different tack in approaching the garment enforcement issue,” Pfister said.
Whereas Reich scolded apparel makers and retailers at news conferences — accompanied at various times by supermodels, talk show host Gifford, clergy and socially responsible mutual fund managers — Herman has basically shied away from press attention.
“She is not looking for as many events as Reich,” said one source. “She wants to meet with workers, but she doesn’t want media there. She’s looking to build partnerships with business. You can’t embarrass someone and get them to be your partner.”
Herman had sound training for keeping the peace, while still being persuasive, at her previous post as director of the Office of Public Liaison, the President’s bridge builder with corporate America, unions, religious groups and other constituencies.
Her delivery is controlled and quiet, rarely straying from prepared remarks in speeches that typically emphasize her five goals as Labor secretary, which include helping people move from welfare to work and balancing work and family. Deeply religious, Herman last Sunday delivered her Labor Day address during church services at the National Cathedral.
In contrast, Reich, who’s returned to academia as a leading political economist, delighted in challenging audiences and speaking off the cuff with reporters about Labor policies, often putting issues in a broader economic and international trade context. In filling the traditional Democratic role as being an advocate for organized labor, Reich’s sweatshop strategy openly supported UNITE’s position to keep pressure on retailers and apparel makers.
For his part, Reich acknowledges the differences in his and Herman’s approach to sweatshops, but says their goals are the same.
“Obviously, there are different ways of approaching the issue, and at this stage, perhaps a somewhat lower-key partnership between the industry and government is appropriate,” Reich said in an interview. “The first challenge was to get the industry and the public’s attention. That required high visibility and active public engagement. Now that everyone knows there is a problem out there and the industry knows it can’t duck its responsibilities, comes the hard and practical job of working out detailed solutions. Often that requires a quieter mode of operation.”
In May, Herman, in her role as anti-sweatshop good-will ambassador, stopped at Levi Strauss & Co.’s San Francisco headquarters during a swing through California to urge the company to join the White House anti-sweatshop task force. The task force was set up by President Clinton a year ago to work out a global program for apparel factory labor standards, including a blueprint for monitoring production.
In July, she dropped in on a White House task force meeting to show her support. That month she also telephoned Jerell Inc.’s president and ceo Ed Vierling to thank him for joining other Dallas apparel makers in creating a monitoring program for contractors.
The monitoring program created in Dallas is modeled after numerous others fashioned by Labor officials since 1992, the last year of the Bush administration. That was the genesis of the anti-sweatshop crackdown, launched in California in conjunction with state Labor officials. Getting manufacturers to monitor contractors, under the threat of seizing shipments produced in violation of federal wage laws, has remained the foundation of the anti-sweatshop effort as it’s received more funding and been extended to other cities.
Paul Gill, president of the San Francisco Fashion Council, said manufacturers largely have come to accept the added enforcement, which is widely viewed even by industry for having improved contractor labor law compliance. And he welcomes the increased interest among Labor officials to urge manufacturers, as well as retailers, to undertake thorough price analysis to judge when a contractor may be underbidding an order, which is seen by the agency as a main cause of shortchanging worker wages.
Otherwise, pitting one segment of the fashion industry against another via bad publicity has only created a disincentive for retailers to buy pricier domestically produced goods out of fear of being caught up in a sweatshop scandal, Gill said. Likewise, however hard manufacturers work to make sure their contractors are in compliance, the bad publicity creates an incentive for manufacturers to move production to Third World countries to meet retailers’ low-price demands, he said.
“The connection between retailers, wholesalers, manufacturers and contractors is an intricate system,” said Gill, who is also president of children’s wear maker Mousefeathers. “And if I’m a large manufacturer and got hit several times by bad publicity, then I would have to think long and hard about staying in the United States.”
When Herman has spoken out in public on sweatshops, she has tended to praise government and industry working together to combat unscrupulous contractors.
“By working in partnership, government, consumers, labor unions, religious leaders and industry can stop the lawbreakers and allow good companies to compete fairly,” Herman recently wrote as a Los Angeles Times guest columnist.
When she addressed an academic conference on sweatshops in May at Marymount University in suburban Washington, Herman also stressed such partnerships without singling out any sector of the fashion industry for blame.
Reich, speaking to fashion students two years ago at the same university, used a cotton sweater as a prop to demonstrate the costs involved in producing a garment and how contractors are at the bottom of the apparel production “food chain.” Reich reasoned that retailers, who are at the chain’s top, hold sway over prices and therefore squeeze manufacturers who in turn squeeze contractors to keep prices low. Forced to make low bids, contractors then shortchange their workers.
Sources say the food-chain theory remains the guidepost for Labor’s garment industry enforcers, who still consider the contractor area to be riddled with bad actors. Although California and its 150,000-worker fashion industry in the past have received a large share of attention from federal and state authorities and have improved compliance, other garment centers like Chicago, Dallas, Miami and, in particular, New York are still considered to have a lot of problems and workers are routinely found to be owed tens of thousands of dollars in back wages.
It remains to be seen whether Herman’s sweatshop approach will render more compliance.
Bud Konheim, president of New York-based Nicole Miller and supporter of Reich’s use of the bully pulpit, said Labor’s influence over sweatshops has waned under Herman.
“I don’t sense the urgency with Alexis Herman on the issue. Reich had a sense of urgency,” Konheim said. “In this industry, the only reason to change is because someone has got a great cattle prod that keeps jabbing you in the rear end. That was Robert Reich.”
Praising recent changes in Labor’s sweatshop approach, Richard Reinis, executive director of the Compliance Alliance, an association created by 15 California apparel makers to monitor their 400 contractors, is already judging Herman’s style to be better.
“When she gets into her position more in a few months, she’ll be a forceful advocate toward a reasonable approach toward compliance,” Reinis said.