No Sweat: Hard Lessons from Garment Industry History

No Sweat: Hard Lessons from Garment Industry History

This Thanksgiving 2006 will witness the anniversary almost to the day ninety-seven years ago, when the immigrant shopgirls of New York’s shirtwaist factories called a general strike. This past April, and then on May Day, immigrant workers, 120 years after the first strike movement for the eight-hour day (May Day, 1886), asserted their claim to just treatment.

The fall and rise of sweatshop labor in New York and elsewhere in the global garment industry is a story with lessons for our time, for the struggles over the sweatshop issue today echo the issues and contentions of a century ago. Then, as now, there was tension between workers and their middle-class allies.

Ninety-seven years ago, the twenty-three year old Clara Lemlich, otherwise described as a girl of sixteen because she was short and because so many of her fellow strikers were still in their teens, declared, to an expectant Cooper Union crowd, that “as I am one of those who feels and suffers from the things pictured. I move that we go on a general strike!” Thus came the dramatic crucible of garment workers’ ascent from the sweatshop—the Uprising of the twenty thousand of 1909-1910, followed by the cloakmakers’ Great Revolt of sixty thousand later in 1910 and the subsequent rapid growth of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), its survival through periods of sectarian strife, the grand New Deal coalition, and the generation of decency from about 1940-1980.

Clara Lemlich’s moment in the spotlight of history highlights the first, and most important, pillar upon which vulnerable workers in the twentieth century depended for material decency and social enfranchisement—their own self-defense in unions and community organizations.

The history of U.S. progressives’ response to super-exploited labor in sweatshops shows two other pillars of support, one enabling the other. One is the alliance—sometimes uneasy—between workers and their reformer, usually middle-class, allies. This alliance resulted in the third pillar for worker decency: public policies that supported workers’ rights to organize and created social supports that allowed them to participate fully in the life of the society.

Reformers did not always intend to support such policies, sometimes preferring consumer action through ethical labeling and consumer choice. Often, though, reformers’ market-based voluntarism turned into advocacy for protective legislation for vulnerable populations—child labor laws, minimum-wage-and-hour legislation and the like, and social safety nets such as Social Security and Unemployment Insurance.

CONSUMER ACTION was the realm of Florence Kelley and her National Consumers League, founded in 1899. The National Consumers League had promulgated, for the better part of two decades, from 1899 to 1918, a “White Label”—in effect, a No Sweat guarantee—that ensured that women’s cotton underwear with the Wh...