NEW YORK — Domestic apparel workers may be losing out in their struggle against low-cost foreign producers, but UNITE doesn’t intend to let the jobs go without a fight.

This story first appeared in the June 27, 2002 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

That became quite clear at a Wednesday morning hearing about uniforms for workers of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which ended in a scuffle between UNITE staffers and MTA security.

The MTA board voted at the meeting to award a $23.6 million contract for uniforms to VF Corp.’s VF Solutions division, which produces garments at foreign plants, including some that the union described as sweatshops.

As the board members began their vote, some two dozen UNITE members and allies sitting in the observers area began to blow plastic whistles and chant “Shame on the MTA.” At that point, plainclothes security guards headed into the crowd, first asking the members to quiet down and then telling them to leave.

A shoving match started in the back corner of the packed room between one of the guards and Ed Vargas, UNITE’s assistant to the president. The two men began to shout at each other and the guard grabbed Vargas’ arm, at which point UNITE secretary-treasurer Edgar Romney stepped in, telling the guard to release Vargas.

As other guards jumped into the scuffle, a few people fell over, chairs slid across the floor and most of the union members and other observers headed for the door. Guards then escorted Romney, Vargas and the rest of the remaining UNITE contingent from the room. The two VF representatives present, looking nervous, discussed with each other whether they should find a side way out of the building on Madison Avenue between East 44th and 45th Streets.

After the meeting, Vargas told WWD that the altercation started when a security guard tried to pull away his whistle.

“I was whistling and he tried to pull the whistle out of my mouth. He could have broken my teeth,” he said. “Why did he put his hands on me? He could have asked us to stop. What happened is he had to prove his macho-ness.”

Romney questioned why the group had to leave the public hearing, saying, “There is no reason we should not have been allowed to express our displeasure.”

UNITE’s gripe centered around the MTA’s decision to award the union contract to VF, the Greensboro, N.C.-based apparel giant, which now produces about 85 percent of its goods outside the U.S. The union said it had found sweatshop conditions in factories in Mexico and El Salvador from which VF contracts goods.

At Estrella de Plata, a Mexican factory that makes uniforms for VF, the union said that in 1999 workers reported fainting on the job because the facility was poorly ventilated and no water was available. At two El Salvador factories, Formosa Textiles and Exmodica, which produce children’s apparel for VF, the union said the National Labor Committee discovered in 2000 that workers were forced to work unpaid overtime, were provided with dirty drinking water and were restricted from talking with each other or freely using the bathroom.

“VF is making uniforms in Mexico and other countries where poverty wages and disgusting conditions are all too common,” Romney said in his testimony before the vote. “The MTA is setting itself up as a supporter of sweatshops.”

Other speakers said it was galling for the MTA, an quasi-governmental organization with operations in New York and Connecticut, to be placing an order for garments with a vendor from outside the city, given that the city’s economy as a whole and its apparel manufacturing base in particular has been suffering since the Sept. 11 attacks.

“At a time when we’ve lost so many jobs in New York City, it’s unconscionable to be moving jobs out of the city, out of the state, even out of the country,” said Councilwoman Christine Quinn of Manhattan.

The union’s complaints clearly aggravated board member Barry Feinstein, a former president of the Teamsters-affiliated City Employees Union, who said that he consulted extensively with UNITE during the 1 1/2 years spent looking for a new uniform supplier. He acknowledged that he would have preferred to use a domestic union supplier, but said the only union supplier who bid planned to charge $35.3 million, $11.7 million more than VF.

“The law does not allow us to simply say we are going to use a union contractor,” he explained. “In fact, it does not allow us to do that.”

For their part, two VF officials who testified at the meeting said they did not buy from sweatshops.

“We don’t think tax dollars should be spent on goods made in sweatshops,” said Bill Ables, senior sales executive for national accounts at the Nashville-based VF Solutions unit. “Uniforms made by VF are not made in sweatshops.”

Jim Tewmey, the unit’s vice president of sales, added that VF also supplies uniforms to the Fire Department of New York and the Border Patrol, and that it routinely audits all its factories to ensure they are in compliance with all local labor laws and VF’s code of conduct.

“VF Solutions always has and will continue to abide by the best practices of the industry,” he said.

Feinstein said the issue of whether the MTA should buy only U.S.-made goods or only goods made by union suppliers, could not be resolved in the fifth-floor board room.

“The place to try to change the rules that we have to live with is not here at the MTA, but in Albany,” he said, referring to the state capital.

“Sponsor the legislation that would require the contractors to be union,” he told union representatives.”

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