An inspiring if flawed documentary, Made in L.A. follows three Los Angeles sweatshop workers as their lawsuit against a low-price retail label and the community campaign to support them developed from 2001 through 2004. Enthusiastically received by critics and activists in 2007 when it was broadcast on PBS’s P.O.V. series, the film received even more praise in 2008 when it won an Emmy for “Outstanding Continuing Coverage of a News Story-Long Form.”
The three Latina women who occupy the film’s center stage grow more confident and more dignified as their struggles deepen. At the end of the documentary their case is settled by the “fast-fashion” (that is, cheap and trendy) Forever 21 firm, and, according to unofficial reports, they are awarded back pay while the firm agrees to be law-abiding in the future. The commitment of the staff of the Garment Worker Center (GWC) that organized the Forever 21 campaign, the five years of stick-to-itiveness by the filmmakers, and the poignant human stories of the three women deserve attention more serious than the adulation it received from anti-sweatshop NGOs.
Although it is a dramatic portrayal of human success, the film surfs on the surface of serious, unresolved strategic issues that hamper domestic opponents of sweatshop labor. These issues involve the fight for jobs in the context of corporate globalization, the problem of creating democratic worker organizations that can fight for rights at work, and the fate of immigrants without official papers. Another large matter of cultural politics lurks behind our appreciation of this film: the representation of labor’s struggle as a fight for individual rather than collective rights.
Early in the litigation, two manufacturers named in the original suit settled with nineteen workers for substantial back pay and made pledges of good behavior. Some forty-five other workers, toiling in contractor shops that supplied Forever 21—which would not settle—then associated themselves with the ongoing suit seeking pay and damages. When the suit was settled, the terms—except for Forever 21’s pledge of good behavior—were not disclosed, but a “financial settlement” has been referred to in the L.A. and industry press. One of the GWC organizers claims that the publicity of the campaign was crucial in setting the stage for L.A.’s very strong 2004 anti-sweatshop ordinance. The L.A. ordinance commits the city to sweat-free uniform purchases and also to an aggressive monitoring posture. The details of implementation are still being worked out, but the city has engaged the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) in a pilot project for monitoring and remediation.
The three women and the GWC staffer featured in the film, Joann Lo, glow with courage and dedication. Their stories appeal to us across the divides of ethnicity, gender, and class. Lupe Hernandez is inspired to become an organizer; Maura Colorado grapples with her shy...
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