A horrific factory fire in Bangladesh last Saturday killed 112 garment workers laboring in sweatshop conditions as they cut and sewed t-shirts, fleece jackets and other sportswear sold at Wal-Mart and other big U.S. retailers. A century after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City led to serious reform in our national labor laws, U.S. merchants still tolerate oppressive and unsafe working conditions in other countries where they can pay large numbers of workers subsistence wages while manufacturing products that generate billions in profits for corporate leaders.
I attend a lot of meetings where I hear corporate CEOs berating American schools for not “producing” enough of the kinds of workers that big business says are necessary to drive the economic engines of the nation. But when those same companies claim that they will move jobs overseas to get the labor they need because of “failing” schools, I wonder if the truth is actually quite different. The biggest, wealthiest companies in this nation (Apple, Wal-Mart) use foreign labor because it’s cheap and unprotected. Apple’s Foxconn factories in China have scandalous reputations for oppressive labor practices.
American schools have challenges, yes, but American students also do not want to grow up to become maltreated factory workers. American workers want just wages, safe working conditions and a say in the policies and practices in their workplaces. So let’s not just accept unchallenged the corporate line that says that American education cannot produce enough workers that major corporations want — maybe the work, itself, is not what anyone should have to want under the conditions offered.
“Look for the Union Label” is a song and slogan that used to signify the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, the first predominantly female union in this country formed in the early 20th Century in response to egregious factory conditions. The union gained strength after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and was able to push for substantial labor protections. Today, the union Unite Here is the successor organization to ILGWU.
I went looking for the union labels on various items of my clothing today, and I’m somewhat chagrined to say that I could not find one. I’m wearing imports — but not the kind worth bragging about. No, these clothes were all made in Indonesia, China, Mexico and other places where American manufacturers have garment factories using cheap labor to produce mass-market American clothing. Even my National’s baseball cap has a label that shouts, “Made in China.”
Ironic, isn’t it, that corporate titans who often wear American flag pins on their lapels and tout the importance of patriotism and “America First” also run businesses that reject American labor and prefer to produce goods in places where labor exploitation is permissible. Corporate and political hostility to unions undermines American jobs and earning power — but in the recent presidential campaign we did not hear much about restoring respect for American labor or confronting major corporations on their foreign labor practices. Yes, union excesses have played a role in dampening enthusiasm for the basic rights protection that organized labor represents, but in the end, as a nation we should stand firmly for civil and human rights everywhere. Where are the pro-life advocates on the factory conditions in Bangladesh? Protection of the rights of workers is, by the way, part of Catholic social teaching. See Rerum Novarum.
The Bangladesh factory fire is a global scandal, but particularly, an American shame. Those workers died for our t-shirts and hoodies, and perhaps more grievously, for the corporate profits the treacherous working conditions made possible. We should all start looking for the union labels on what we buy. I know that I will.
See Harold Myerson, “Wal-Mart’s Strategy of Deniability for Workers’ Safety” Washington Post, November 27
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