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A Stitch in Time May Save Jobs

by Joel Kotkin

November 6, 1997 | 7:00 pm

For generations of my own family, and many Jewish families, thegarment industry long has been a source of employment andentrepreneurial opportunity. Yet, in recent weeks, some local Jewishactivists, led by the American Jewish Congress, have been making theshmatte business and its workers once again the object oftheir heartfelt intentions.

Although concern for garment workers' rights and wages is alegitimate one, the AJCongress seems more motivated by what ExecutiveDirector Carole Levy calls "our hearts and morals" and nostalgicmemories of "our grandparents" than by a well-thought-outunderstanding of either the current economic realities or the ethnicclimate that is Los Angeles.

For one thing, the AJCongress campaign has already resulted inseveral pieces in the mainstream media -- including one by UC SantaBarbara Professor Richard Applebaum -- painting Jewish manufacturersas largely responsible for the exploitation of predominately Latinoworkers. Given the recent racially tinged flap over Councilman MikeFeuer and Councilwoman Laura Chick's demand for coke-sniffingCouncilman Mike Hernandez's resignation, posing the garment issue insuch ethnic terms makes about as much sense as lofting a Molotovcockatil in a crowded theater.

The AJCongress campaign also is almost certain to drive yetanother chasm within the Jewish community itself. Despite Levy'sgenuine claims of impartiality, the Los Angeles Jewish Commission ofSweatshops is likely to reflect the views of industry critics such asacademic Applebaum. He sits on the commission alongside arepresentative of the Jewish Labor Committee, a tiny but vocal groupwhose first vice president is Jay Mazur, the president of UNITE, theleading garment workers union. Industry representatives, althoughinvited to observe and testify, have been excluded from the panel,leading one disgusted former AJCongress board member, David Abel, toliken the whole investigation to a "kangaroo court."

Linking union agitation to the sweatshop fight has been a commontactic since the revelation in 1995 of a "slave shop" in El Monte. Inthe media wars, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and TextileEmployees (UNITE) -- the result of the mid-1990s merger of two fadingold-line garment unions -- has used revelations of sometimesdisgraceful working conditions as a way to win sympathy for its causeand condemnation for the industry.

Yet a close examination of recent U.S. Labor Department findingsmight lead some of the less Pavlovian Jewish activists to rethinktheir retro-1930s views of unionism. Just last month, the LaborDepartment published findings identifying sweatshop violations of theFair Labor Standards Act by 63 percent of the shops in heavilyunionized New York; among shops represented by UNITE, the level ofviolations reached 75 percent.

Ironically, the New York survey puts the relative performance ofthe much-abused, largely unorganized Los Angeles garment industry --the prime concern of the AJCongress campaigners -- in a somewhat morefavorable light. After having been rightfully shamed by disgracefulconditions at some of their contractors, California manufacturershave proven themselves more proficient at reducing abuses than theirunionized colleagues across the county. The development of anindustry-funded monitoring system is a primary reason.

A survey last year, for example, found roughly 39 percent of LosAngeles-based contractors in compliance, with two-thirds of monitoredfirms in full compliance. As the manufacturer-led compliance programhas expanded, one top Labor Department official estimates thatoverall compliance may now be roughly 50 percent, and far higheramong monitored firms.

These changes, along with boosts in the minimum wage, have helpeddrive wages for Los Angeles' garment workers up 20 percent since1995, according to Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman.

Ultimately, the good-hearted activists of the AJCongress should gobeyond their nostalgic union proclivities to also explore other ways-- such as improved industry monitoring, better marketing and workertraining -- that might be more effective in boosting wages andworking conditions in a highly competitive, globalized industry. Thisis no longer your -- or my -- grandmother's garment industry oreconomy; unions may not be the solution that they once were in an erawhen America faced limited foreign competition and had effectivelycurtailed most immigration.

Instead of patronizingly suggesting that Latino and Asian workersfollow the model of our own forebears, perhaps it would be better tounderstand why so few workers today -- UNITE can claim no more than500 members in an industry that employs upward of 100,000 workers --see their salvation in unionization.

At Sorrento Mills in San Bernardino, 42 out of 50 workers thisfall voted to "decertify" the union, claiming that UNITE did littleto improve their working conditions or wages. A lawsuit against UNITEfiled by Sorrento workers claims that the union punished them fortheir actions by forcing M. Shapiro, a unionized Los Angelescoat-maker, to withdraw a contract from the firm.

The experience of Sorrento's co-owner, Simeon Prophet, alsoprovides some insight into something that the AJCongress inquisitorsmight do well to consider -- why so many employers dislike UNITE.Like others who have tried to work with the union, Prophet chargesthe union with using intimidation tactics, such as slashing tires,breaking windows and verbally intimidating workers who wanted tobreak ranks -- claims with which a UNITE spokeswoman in New York saidshe was completely unfamiliar.

At the same time, the commission should also consider how itsefforts to what role the one-sided portrayal of the industry may havein helping push more and more sewing operations, including those fromUNITE bête noire Guess?, out of the region and to such bastionsof labor rights as Mexico, Sri Lanka and the People's Republic ofChina. Of course, the jobs gone from Los Angeles won't be those heldby righteous liberals in Brentwood, Santa Monica or Malibu. But thepain will be real for the thousands of workers, mostly Latino, andentrepreneurs, many recent Jewish immigrants from the Middle East andNorth Africa, who could lose their jobs, hopes and dreams. Maybe thenthey will be able call up the good-hearted activists of theAJCongress to pay the rent and feed their families. After all, itwould be the "moral" thing to do.

Joel Kotkin is the John M. Olin Fellow at the PepperdineInstitute for Public Policy and a Senior Fellow at the PacificResearch Institute.

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