Civilizing Capitalism: The National Consumers' League, Women's Activism, and Labor Standards in the New Deal Era

By Landon R. Y. Storrs | Go to book overview

introduction

The sweatshop is back. In the United States and in foreign factories producing goods for American companies, there are workers who face the wage slavery and hazardous conditions that horrified reformers a century ago. Labor exploitation never disappeared, nor was it ever confined to "sweating," a specific practice usually associated with subcontracting in the garment industries. But reforms initiated in the turn-of-the-century period known as the Progressive Era and consolidated during the New Deal of the 1930s curbed the most egregious abuses of employees in American manufacturing for many decades. In the 1980s and 1990s, however, the weakening of the labor movement, budget cuts for regulatory agencies, and free trade policies blind to labor practices combined to permit a resurgence of the sweatshop and to spread its features to other kinds of workplaces. 1

Fresh evidence of these developments surfaces regularly. In August 1995 a U. S. Department of Labor raid in southern California found seventy-two undocumented Thai workers, most of them women, who literally had been enslaved for as long as seven years. Kept behind barbed-wire fences under the eye of armed guards, they worked eighteen-hour days making clothes for major American manufacturers and retailers. In 1996 labor activists embarrassed television personality Kathie Lee Gifford by exposing human rights violations in the production of her Wal-Mart clothing line in Honduras and New York. American consumers expressed growing concern for the people who made their favorite clothes and sneakers. Basketball hero Michael Jordan was pressed to justify the endorsement of Nike shoes that earned him more in one year than Nike paid to its entire Indonesian workforce. Editorials and cartoons appeared at the expense of image-conscious corporations. (A typical cartoon, showing people crowded onto the embassy roof in Saigon with a helicopter overhead, read "Of course we want to leave. . . . We all work for Nike.") On college campuses around the nation, students staged sit-ins to demand that products bearing their school's name be made under humane conditions. 2

This publicity stimulated various approaches to cleaning up labor abuses in global clothing production. In 1995 Secretary of Labor Robert Reich

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