VENDORS DEBATE: HOW CORRUPT IS THE BUSINESS?
Byline: Arthur Friedman, Rosemarie Feitelberg and Anne D’Innocenzio
NEW YORK — Racketeering on Seventh Avenue?
Some apparel executives expressed surprise at the government’s charges leveled Tuesday against ILGWU local officials, contractors and vendors. Other weren’t surprised at all, saying such activities are inherent to the industry, where the race to make a buck is becoming more pressured every day.
There are union detractors and supporters among apparel executives here, but most agree that no matter what their opinion is of the ILGWU, the aftermath of such charges can only tarnish the industry’s image.
“This is the government trying to get rid of the Ladies Garment Workers Union,” said a sportswear executive who requested anonymity. “These kinds of demands from the union’s local officials have been going on for a long time. It is an integral part of the garment industry.”
“This is devastating to the union and reflects poorly on everyone in the industry,” said Bud Konheim, president of Nicole Miller Ltd. “It’s like when one manufacturer is found using slave labor somewhere in China, the average person thinks everyone in the garment industry must be guilty.”
Konheim said it’s unfortunate that some bad seeds should tarnish the reputation of the ILGWU, which he feels does a lot of good in organizing and protecting its workers.
“In my opinion people like Jay Mazur [ILGWU president] and Edgar Romney [ILGWU executive vice president] are squeaky clean and very civic-minded and do a great job for their members,” Konheim said. “But this gives them a second agenda to worry about now. Even though only one local is involved, there will be people who will now question where their payments to the union’s health and welfare fund go, for instance, and is there more beyond this case.”
Konheim said in all his years in the industry, he’s never been approached by any union official to do anything illegal, and his company has done some cutting with Local 10.
Howard Bloom, president of Chetta B, which has done work with Local 10, said he was shocked by the news.
“I’m a union shop and I’ve never heard of this kind of corruption or dealt with it,” Bloom said. “They have always been legitimate with me. Everything is always on the up and up.”
Despite the charges, Bloom said his business would not be affected.
While the publicity would be detrimental to the industry, it should not have long-lasting effects, he said.
“There are some people in the boondocks who will think, ‘Oh, the garment industry — those wise guys,”‘ Bloom said. “But a couple of bad apples doesn’t spoil the whole bunch.”
Some manufacturers, however, blame the union for strong-arming manufacturers, while others feel the government’s trade policies have squeezed the domestic industry so tightly that it creates corruption.
“All I can tell you is the contractors live by their wits and they do what they have to survive,” said one coat manufacturer, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They have a very short season, with long layoffs and face competition from non-union shops and from cheap imports. Nothing they do would surprise me.”
Another manufacturer, who asked that his name not be used, said price demands from retailers and consumers are so great that the industry can no longer afford union wages in its sewing plants.
“If everybody was union like it was years ago, things would be different,” the manufacturer said. “Trying to maintain legitimate union business in the climate of free trade that we’re in, with the competition from around the globe, is near impossible.”
Still another ready-to-wear manufacturer said he has avoided working with unions “at all costs.”
“I’ve always been terrified by the union. I’ve heard so many horror stories about how they control people’s businesses with intimidation and infiltration techniques,” he said. “These charges don’t surprise me. My impression of union workers has always been the same as everyone else’s — they’re roughnecks and bullies.”
The union’s influence on the apparel industry has forced domestic manufacturers to source overseas, he said. “The union is like the Mafia. They’re a very powerful organization,” he said. “The small people don’t matter.”
“Any honest manufacturer would prefer not to deal with the union,” said Steve Blatt, president of Searle Blatt Ltd. “On the other hand, that’s not the reality of life. I’ve been part of the union since I’ve been in business. I’m probably not going to fight the situation.”
As for bribery and corruption, Blatt said: “I’m sure it happens in every industry. There are some guys trying to make an honest living and others are taking bribes and laundering money. There are lots of opportunities to make a dishonest dollar. But you have to make your own choices.”