Hidden Labor; Uncovering L.A.'s Garment Industry

7th St. and Grand. Taken down on May 15, 1998. A project of the Common Threads Artists, composed of Roxane Auer, Eva Cockcroft, Mary-Linn Hughes, Sheila Pinkel, Judy Branfman, Leslie Ernst, Alessandra Moctezuma, Leda Ramos. The project was funded by the Community Redevelopment Agency Downtown Cultural Trust Fund, California Council for the Humanities, Puffin Foundation. Window space provided courtesy of Aston Partners. Do not reproduce information from this site without acknowledgement of the artists and their works, or of the authors of this site.

The project consists of photographs, objects, a mural, and text in Spanish and in English. The English text is reproduced below, along with selected images (provided courtesy of Common Threads Artist Group):

To The Land of Sunshine and Sweatshops

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As immigrants, mainly Jewish and Italian, poured into this country around the turn of the century, they became the backbone of the thriving garment industry and the young garment unions in New York. Union organizing resulted in the "Uprising of the 20.000" in 1909, sparking a wave of strikes throughout the northeast. But sweatshop conditions remained pervasive, gaining national attention when 146 workers lost their lives in the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911. Los Angeles was well-known for being an anti-union town and manufacturers profited from the lack of regulations. The garment industry prospered as workers streamed into L.A., many seeking to live in the healthy climate that could cure "consumption" (tuberculosis), the sweatshop lung disease.

1825 - In the first clear-cut garment action, New York tailoresses were first to form a women's union and lead their own strike.

1846 - Elias Howe Jr. is granted the first U.S. patent for a lock-stitch sewing machine.

1860s-1890s - Development of standardized, proportional size system and production of military uniforms for the Civil War strengthens mass production system. The use of contracting shops and production under sweatshop conditions escalates. The use of the sewing machine increases division of labor, making work more routinized and repetitious.

1891 - United Garment Workers (UGW) forms but only represents the skilled workers in the men's garment industry.

1897 - Morris Cohn becomes the first clothing manufacturer in L.A., making overalls and shirts.

1900 - NY-ILGWU (International Ladies' Garment Workers Union) founded. It is the only union that specializes in organizing workers that maker women's clothes and works to organize the whole industry. The majority of the workers are poor, Yiddish-speaking, immigrant Jews.

1909 - NY- "Uprising of the 20,000"- 15,000 shirtwaist makers, most of them women, go on strike. Strikers are supported by the Women's Trade Union League, a group of middle and upper-class women. The strike fails but encourages the participants.

1910 - The Merchants and Manufacturing Association and the L.A. Times create an anti-picketing ordinance.

1911 - A fire breaks out in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory where doors are locked to keep workers in and union organizers out, fire escapes don't reach the upper floors and there are no sprinkler systems. 146 mostly women and girls, burn or jump to their deaths.

1914 - The Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA) forms to organize workers who make men's clothing- their first L.A. local is established in 1920. L.A. is an OPEN SHOP town. Open Shop- Employers could hire either union or non-union workers, and usually chose non-union workers in order to keep the pay scale down and control working conditions.

During and immediately after WWI, the L.A. Red Squad intensifies the open -shop campaign by arresting Mexican unionists as "reds" and "subversives."

1920 - First vocational course in power sewing taught through L.A. Board of Education and Chamber of Commerce.

1923 - Successful strike by cloakmakers; 80% of cloak and suit makers, mostly men, secure union conditions.

1925 - Frederick Cole introduces the fashion Swimsuit.

1928 - In an effort to eliminate Communist members, ILGWU Local 52 is dissolved by the General Executive Board in NY and replaced by Local 65.

1929 - Stock market crash- beginning of the Great Depression. Workers experience wage cuts, layoffs, breadlines.


During the height of the Depression, and throughout the 1930s, union organizing gained momentum nationally and took hod among the female garment workers in L.A. Spearheaded by Rose Pesotta, and ILGWU organizer from New York, a major strike occurred in 1933. Another large strike followed in 1936. These laid to rest the false idea that Latina workers could not be organized. Union membership in L.A.'s ladies garment industry surged during this period, growing from roughly 300 to almost 4,000 members (nationally ILGWU membership grew from 24,000 to 239,000). During the period from 1930 through 1950 the formation of manufacturers' associations, the rise of individual designers and the development of new markets marked new directions for the garment industry.

1930-1950 - Important issues are formation of manufacturers' associations, work of individual designers, and the development of markets.

1930 - Local 65 cloak and suit workers strike for better wages, a 40 hour work week, to force employers to allow sharing of available work during slow seasons and to recognize the ILGWU. The defeat of this strike results in a downward spiral of wages. The work day is often 12 hours, sometimes seven days a week.

1933 - National Industrial Recovery Act established, creating the National Recovery Administration (NRA): First time labor and industry work together to regulate hours and wages while assuring profits for industry. Creates first minimum wage requirements. In addition workers are given the right to join unions and engage in collective bargaining.

1933 - Rose Pesotta, ILGWU International Vice-President, is sent to L.A. to start the first major effort to organize Latina dressmakers. She finds workers earning $6 below the minimum wage of $16. She involves Latina organizers in campaign, puts out a newsletter in English and Spanish and does a weekly radio show in both languages.

Cloakmakers and dressmakers strike. The mostly male cloakmakers sign a separate agreement and go back to work. The dressmakers continue to strike and demand a 35 hour work week, minimum wages, and a fair arbitration committee. The strikers win a wage increase, build momentum and prove that Latinos can be organized. As a result, ILGWU Local 96, a dressmakers' local, is chartered.

1933 - The L.A. Chamber of Commerce and Associated Apparel Manufacturers of L.A. oppose unionization of the industry.

1934 - ILG Local 97, a pressers' local, chartered. An organizing drive is successful in organizing 1,300 of the 7,000 dressmaking employees: the agreement allows for recognition of the union, seven hour work days, five day work week and establishes wage levels, health and disability benefits and an arbitration committee.

1936 - In August 3,000 dressmakers led by Local 96 strike for three days. Overcoming police beatings and arrests, they win a closed-shop agreement for 2,650 workers in 56 dress shops.

With the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, L.A. ILGWU raises $126,000 for the Red Cross in Spain.

1937 - ILG Local 266, a sportswear local, chartered.


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World War II brought vigorous union participation in wartime production. Union members helped to make parachutes and other necessities. The war also marked a shift in both products and methods of production in the L.A. apparel industry. Before the war, coats and suits were made in union shops in Los Angeles. After the war, the industry shifted to fashion-conscious, moderately-priced, mainly women's sportswear and the "California Look" developed, selling California as a fun place in the sun. Because of the relative instability of fashion, apparel manufacturers increased their use of contracting shops where they didn't have to be responsible for workers' "down-time" (periods without work). The use of numerous contracting shops, spread around the city, made unionization much difficult.

1940 - Rose Pesotta is again sent to L.A. by the ILGWU International to help organize the 7,500 to 10,000 people employed in non-union sportswear shops. Pesotta targets the giant Mode O'Day Company and recruits workers to a local set up in the factory. There is so much enthusiasm that the factory owners accept an ILGWU contract without a strike.

Business leaders are virulently anti-union and the police "Red Squad" is regularly used to provoke violence in order to intimidate and discredit striking workers.

1941 - By 1941 the cloakmakers are virtually all organized- not so with the women in the dress and sportswear industries. Pesotta leads another strike in sportswear shops and Local 266 signs up 1,200 new members.

1942 - Pose Pesotta resigns as ILG Vice-President when the International refuses to recognize that she is as "competent as any of the men on out staff" or give her a leadership position in the new L.A. local she has organized.

Section sewing increases. Rather than sewing the whole garment sewers sew only part of it, making it easier to contract specific parts of the work to outside sweatshops which are difficult to organize. Workers are paid by the piece rather than by the hour or week.

1949 - ILGWU officials resign or are removed for not signing non-Communist affidavits. Many feel that their political opinions are irrelevant to their duties as trade union officials.

1951 - A new organizing drive succeeds in organizing over a dozen new suit and coat firms and several dress shops. The first ILGWU retirement fund for over-age workers on the west coast is established. ILGWU blocks attempt by the Deanna Dee Company to change over from whole garment production to sectionalized operations.

1953 - New agreements and higher wages are won by the Dress Joint Board.


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Not only did garment manufacturers move to Los Angeles to escape the unions, but by the 1960's, with the development of transportation and communications technology, it became feasible to produce garments in other countries. First apparel manufacturers, then retailers, began to produce garments in Asia and Latin America, then searched the world for the cheapest labor they could find. The result was a growth in imports and an overall loss of U.S. apparel jobs. American garment workers found themselves pitted against workers who earned 1/10th the U.S. wage. As a result, labor standards eroded and it became harder for unions to make gains. Los Angeles, though was in a unique position. While men's wear production was moved overseas, causing the loss of many union jobs, the non-unionized sportswear industry flourished. California became the only state where employment in the garment industry grew. Most of the jobs are in L.A.

As part of a trade agreement, Tarif Item 807 made it easier to assemble garments in other countries, enabling the development of maquiladoras.

1962 - As the unionized cloak and suit firms close down and older skilled workers retire, union membership declines. New immigrants, many without legal status and without organizing experience, join the growing workforce making sportswear. Most work is done on a piecework basis and prices drop.

1963 - Workers in North Carolina, with the support of ACWA, begin a 17 year effort to unionize J.P. Stevens textile plants. Workers in Los Angeles and across the country picket stores selling J.P. Stevens products. J.P. Stevens' workers win union contracts in 1980.

1966 - Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA) members protest imports at May Co. in downtown L.A.

1970s - Technological advances, outsourcing and the rise of cheap imports make organizing much more difficult. Owners threaten to turn undocumented workers in to the INS if they complain about wages or conditions.

1972 - INS arrests many of the 675 California Swimwear Company workers striking for union recognition.

Despite the arrests, employees at California Swimwear eventually enroll in the ILGWU.

1973 - L.A. ACWA members hold demonstrations against imports and against Farah Pants, downtown May Co.

1977 - The ILGWU files a 4th Amendment lawsuit against the INS for unwarranted search and seizure and wins on appeal. While it was later overturned by the Supreme Court in 1984, the union's original success in the case encourages the INS to reduce its garment shop raids.

Roughly 64% of sewing on dresses is done in small contracting shops scattered around L.A. rather than in the manufacturers own "inside" shop. This enables manufacturers to make rapid changes and cut costs.


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Garment production is divided up into steps, in a modified form of assembly-line. A garment worker's job typically involves repeating the same procedure over and over, at great speed. Garment workers are usually paid piece rate, which means getting paid only for the number of procedures they complete. As a result, they do not get paid if they have to wait for work. Nor are they paid for sick leave, holidays, vacations or benefits like health insurance. Even though legally mandated to pay the minimum wage and overtime, employers often fail to make it up if the piece rate falls short. On the other hand, if workers make "too much" employers will cut their piece rate, so that they continue to earn only a bare subsistence.


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Almost all garment workers in Los Angeles are immigrants. They come from a variety of homelands, including Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, China, Vietnam and Thailand. Garment workers, who are mainly women, come to the U.S. either because their homeland has been ravaged by war, or because it has been ravaged by an economic development policy that leaves them and their families without a means of survival. And yet connections to home and family continue and are expressed through the exchange of letters, photos and personal objects.

Increased resistance on the part of employers toward unionization is the single most important factor inhibiting the union's growth. The anti-union climate of the Reagan years, unwillingness of state and federal officials to enforce protective labor legislation and fear of deportation also contribute.

1980- 85% of sewing done in contracting shops - only 15% done in "inside" shops.

1980's- INS continues raids in garment factories. Devaluation of peso in Mexico forces workers to come to the U.S. to look for work.

1984- The garment industry edged out production of electrical equipment and aircraft manufacturing as the third largest manufacturing sector in Los Angeles County, with more than 3,000 apparel manufacturers that employ 80,000 workers and are expected to generate $3.5 billion, making the area the undisputed center of apparel production in California.

1984- After a year-long strike, the ILGWU announces the closure of the California Davis Pleating Co. because they refused to sign a fair contract with its mostly Latino workers.

1985- Imports from Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and the People's Republic of China account for over 2/3 of apparel imports being brought into the country. With wages in those countries ranging from 15 cents to $1.15 an hour, it is difficult for U.S. manufacturers to compete. Between 1973 and 1984 jobs in the garment industry declined by 25%.


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The garment industry depends on a hierarchy of competition and exploitation. At the top, retailers compete with each other, attempting to undercut each other's prices. Manufactures, who design and merchandise products and give clothes their labels, are also in fierce competition. They face intense pressure from retailers to lower their prices. Manufacturers, in turn, contract out sewing and other labor-intensive aspects of production to thousands of small contracting shops. These shops are typically the direct exploiters of the workers, but they also are faced with competition and pressure from above to cut prices. So the contractors, who are in direct control of the workplace, claim little ability to change it, and the people at the top, who create public perception, claim they have no responsibility. The result is that garment workers are paid poverty wages while the owners and top managers of apparel firms are often multi-millionaires.

1990's- Los Angeles' garment industry becomes the largest in the country in terms of employment and production. California is the only state where employment in the garment industry is growing. 80% of the state's garment industry is located in Southern California.

1990- Justice for Janitors, SEIU (Service Employees International Union) Local 399, wins a dramatic union drive after the L.A. Police Department tries to violently turn back peaceful marchers in Century City.

Joint Liability: Manufacturers are held financially accountable for labor health and safety violations in their contracting shops.

First joint liability law passed by California legislature but vetoed by Governor Deukmajian.

1992- GUESS, the largest clothing manufacturer based in Los Angeles, is found guilty of child labor and other major labor violations. Under pressure from the U.S> Department of Labor, GUESS agrees to set up a self-monitoring program to carefully check their contractors' shops for sweat-shop conditions. Additional L.A. companies follow suit.

Joint liability law again passed by California legislature but vetoed by Governor Wilson.

1994- Joint liability law passed by California legislature but vetoed by Governor Wilson.

NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) is passed by Congress. The goal is to increase trade activity between Mexico, Canada and the U.S. by eliminating barriers. Few provisions are included for protection of workers or the environment.


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In August 1995, 75 Thai immigrant women were found to be working under conditions of semi-slavery in El Monte, focusing national and international attention on the return of garment sweatshops. Most shocking was the discovery that slave-made clothes were being sold for high prices in upscale stores. Even before this finding, community groups, such as Common Threads, formed to support workers in their efforts to better working conditions and pressure retailers and manufacturers to take greater responsibility for the poor conditions in many contracting shops. A new awareness has emerged among consumers that they can demand that the clothes they buy be made under decent and humane conditions.

1995- Common Threads, a group of women from the L.A. area, forms to educate the public about L.A.'s garment industry and support garment workers' struggles to organize and obtain better working conditions.

ILGWU and ACTWU merge to become UNITE (Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees).

Workers and two sweatshop factories sewing for large companies such as Karen Kane, Anchor Blue, Doc Martens and GUESS?, go on strike with the support of UNITE when workers are fired for attempting to organize.

On August 2, 72 Thai nationals are found enslaved in a sweatshop apartment complex in El Monte. Many had been held there three or more years, working 17 hour days in crowded and rodent infested conditions. The same owners are running a sweatshop in L.A. where Latinas have been working 12-16 hour days. The sweatshops are found sewing for major manufacturers and retailers. With the support of the Thai Community Development Center, Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates (KIWA), the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, and UNITE, both groups of workers file lawsuits and launch a Retailer Accountability Campaign. "RETAILER ACCOUNTABILITY"- Retailers (large and small stores who sell garments) are responsible for making sure that the goods they sell are not produced under sweatshop conditions.

The U.S. Dept. of Labor creates a "Trendsetter List" of 30 "good guy" garment manufacturers who agree to ensure their merchandise is made in law-abiding factories. This list includes GUESS? and The Limited, whose contractors are found running sweatshops shortly afterwards. The National Labor Committee discovers that Disney is using sweatshop labor in Burma, Indonesia, China and Haiti to produce goods for their expanding Disney stores- and targets them with an anti-sweatshop campaign.


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The return of sweatshops has sparked a national outcry. As a first step towards organizing the massive apparel industry, and in response to numerous grievances, UNITE (Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees) is helping workers who make garments for GUESS? in their efforts to organize their workplaces. With increased attention on labor violations, GUESS and other large companies are threatening to move production outside the U.S. where there are lower wages and standards. While garment workers and diverse community members working together can have an impact on apparel industry conditions around the world, the willingness of the Los Angeles community to shape a better world, the willingness of the Los Angeles community to shape a better environment for workers will help determine the future of our city.

1996- After a four year campaign by community activists demanding that Jessica McClintock take responsibility for wages owed by one of her contractors who shut down, Jessica McClintock settles, establishing an educational fund and a system for reporting labor violations.

Twenty workers in GUESS' own "inside" sewing shop are fired for organizing. State inspections reveal workers sewing GUESS clothing for contractors in eight homes, as well as numerous other labor violations. With the support of UNITE workers file a lawsuit against GUESS and 16 of its contractors for labor violations.

Workers picket GUESS? stores throughout Southern California. University students and community advocates support the campaign and organize picket lines at GUESS stores around the country.

Common Threads co-sponsors a literary reading in solidarity with fired workers. GUESS files a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) suit against Common Threads, for the reading, and UNITE. While Guess claims damage to their business, they make $55.2 million during the first nine months of 1996. ($5.7 million more than the same period in 1995).

Los Angeles City Council adopts a resolution condemning sweatshop practices and calls on "all apparel manufacturers and retailers to act with greater corporate responsibility to eradicate sweatshop conditions in the City of Los Angeles".

GUESS sues Sweatshop Watch and Korean Immigrant Workers Advocated.

GUESS removed from the Trendsetter List and put on "probation" for violations uncovered during inspections.

Voters in California raise minimum wage to $5 per hour, increasing to $5.7 in 1998.

1997- Under pressure from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), GUESS signs an agreement with UNITE and offers reinstatement to 20 workers who were fired for organizing at GUESS' own factory.

Two days later GUESS announces it will move 40% of its L.A. manufacturing work to Mexico and South America.

After a period of 60 days keeps GUESS on probation instead of being back on the "Trendsetter" list.

GUESS drops it lawsuit against Common Threads and UNITE but continues trying to stop picketing in front of its stores.


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