Women have played a unique role in the history of clothing manufacture in the United States. During the American Revolution, white women—and, in the case of slaveowning families, black female slaves—wove homespun clothing in order to sustain colonial boycotts on manufactured English goods. Female slaves were an integral part of the cotton cultivation and harvesting that produced the raw materials for textile production during the antebellum period. After emancipation, black women continued their integral role in cotton production as sharecroppers, either working the fields alongside their husbands or providing the childcare and cooking that sustained their husbands and children in the fields. Black women also worked as laundresses throughout the South and in other areas, since it was one of the few paid occupations considered "low" enough for black women. In 1840, lower- and middle-class women made up almost half of manufacturing workers in the nation, and two-thirds of those in New England.172 These young women moved to factory towns like Lynn, Massachusetts and lived in same-sex dormitories with strict schedules and curfews; they usually sent most or all of their meager earnings home to support their families.
In the late nineteenth century, poor women—primarily immigrants—who came to America from Southern and Eastern Europe toiled in the garment industry, centered in New York City. They worked endless hours from home doing outwork (or piecework), in which they were paid by the number of items they sewed in a given time period. Advocates claimed that such work remunerated employees in accordance with their ability, while opponents argued that piecework encouraged quantity at the expense of quality and forced workers to the limits of endurance in order to make a living wage. Women doing outwork had to pay for their own supplies; a heavy investment, especially when it came to the purchase of an expensive sewing machine. Thus some of the earliest workers' protests centered on the heavy burden of having to buy those machines. Other textile and apparel workers labored outside the home in unsanitary, dangerous sweatshops for low wages. Shoe and clothing manufacturers no longer apprenticed young artisans, teaching them how to make an entire shoe or shirt; instead workers were trained in how to sew or stitch a single piece (like a shirt collar, a shirtwaist, or a part of a shoe), and they were only paid for that piece, not for the sale of the final finished product. They had no marketable skills, and were therefore easily replaced and seldom promoted.
One sweatshop typical of the late nineteenth-century period was located at 23-29 Washington Place, at the northern corner of Washington Square East in Manhattan. It was called the Triangle Waist Company, a shirtwaist manufacturer. The building owners subcontracted their work out to men who then paid their workers any wage they chose, since there was, until 1938, no federally mandated minimum wage. Clearly this system enabled the owners of the factory to maintain a comfortable measure of ignorance as to the real workings of the sweatshops that produced their rigid quotas, while workers were exploited in terrible working conditions with long hours (as many as 70 hours a week) and no overtime pay. Most of these workers had no choice; they were immigrants or otherwise unskilled or impoverished, and desperately needed the work. They were also afraid to unionize, or they simply did not have the requisite English language skills to do so. At Triangle, shirtwaist makers toiled ten to twelve hours a day. Supervisors watched the workers constantly; if they talked, whistled, or sang on the job, were a few minutes late to work, or missed a Sunday shift, their pay was docked.
As historian Alice Kessler-Harris has explained, "women's industries like clothing and textiles became centers of strike activity," in part because of the deplorable working conditions but also because of the advertising of the fashion industry itself. The garment producers had created their own paradox: they sought ever-increasing production output at the cheapest possible wages by exploiting their labor force as much as possible, yet in order to sell their products, they marketed a glamorous lifestyle filled with extravagance and ease. Female garment workers compared their unclean, unsafe, and exhausting working conditions with the luxurious world showcased all around them in radio advertisements and popular magazines. Kessler-Harris explains that "much of urban America had already begun to absorb the values of consumerism," and female workers "increasingly began to demand their share of material benefits."173 In 1909, 400 workers—mostly Jewish women—reached their limit and spontaneously walked out of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. Organized by the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and with help from the progressive middle-class members of the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL), this spontaneous eruption of discontent grew into a general strike of shirtwaist makers, and the largest women's strike in American history. The strike lasted for thirteen weeks; 20,000 people ultimately walked out on their jobs, shutting down the industry. News on the strike was printed in English, Italian, and Yiddish, reflecting the diversity of the city and its workers. Thousands of activists marched arm-in-arm on City Hall, and dozens of women were beaten by hostile police, arrested, and even carted off to Blackwell's Island as workhouse prisoners. The workers won widespread public support and as time dragged on, many small and medium shops settled with the union's wage and hour demands. The agreements varied, but generally they involved an employer's recognition of worker's union, an arbitration process to determine piece rates, and an end to the policy of charging workers for needles, thread, and electricity. On 15 February 1910, the ILGWU called off the strike and declared victory, having won 320 separate signed contracts with various employers. Yet the union's success was hollow; there was no industry-wide agreement to enforce these individual shop contracts, and the 70 large manufacturers who dominated the garment industry—including Triangle Shirtwaist—had not made any agreements by strike's end.174
Just a year later, on 25 March 1911, a fire broke out in the supposedly "fireproof" Asch building where Triangle Waist Company occupied the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors. The shirtwaists that hung on lines above the workers' heads and the shirtwaist cuttings that littered the floors quickly ignited, allowing the blaze to spread rapidly through the building. As one reporter described, the sewing machines were "placed so closely together that there was hardly aisle room for the girls between them."175 The workers had been locked inside the factory, a standard practice that the owners employed—supposedly to prevent theft. This policy turned out to be deadly when the fire broke out, as it trapped the workers inside the burning building. A few made it down the stairs, but flames soon blocked that exit route. There was one small fire escape in the corner of the building, but not everyone could make it down. Many women, desperate and suffocating from the fire's dense black smoke, stepped out on the ledge and plunged 100 feet to their deaths. Fire ladders extended up towards some of the women, but were not high enough to reach them. Bodies soon littered Washington Place and Greene Street. Others stayed in the factory and burned alive. Of 500 shirtwaist makers who reported to work that awful day, 146 died in the blaze, all within half an hour. As the New York Times reported the next day, most of the victims were "girls from 16 to 23 years of age... Most of them could barely speak English. Many of them came from Brooklyn. Almost all were the main support of their hard-working families."176
New Yorkers and Americans across the country were shocked by the tragedy. Only a handful of the Triangle workers were ILGWU members, and Triangle Shirtwaist was a non-union shop. Unions capitalized on this fact, using the disaster to illustrate their contention that an organized workforce could demand safer working conditions. Several unions, including the ILGWU, the WTUL, and the United Hebrew Trades formed the Joint Relief Committee, which raised relief money—some $30,000—for fire survivors and their families. The ILGWU organized a rally to protest the unsafe working conditions that created the disaster, and the Women's Trade Union League collected testimonies and campaigned for an investigation of the working conditions at Triangle. Within a month, New York's governor appointed the Factory Investigating Commission, which held a series of hearings over five years and helped to pass groundbreaking factory safety legislation. Eight months after the fire, a jury acquitted building owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris of any wrongdoing.
Despite subsequent gains in workplace safety legislation, sweatshops continue to plague the garment and textile manufacturing industries, both at home and abroad. The U.S. Department of Labor has conducted several studies in the twenty-first century, finding that 67% of Los Angeles garment factories and 63% of New York garment factories violate minimum wage and overtime laws. In Los Angeles, 98% of garment factories have workplace health and safety problems serious enough to lead to severe injuries or death. Abroad, the situation is even worse; workers in northern Mexico have seen manufacturers migrate even farther south, where wages are lower and labor protections often go unenforced. One 2002 Los Angeles Times article profiled a mother of five in a Mexican border town two hours southwest of San Antonio, a woman who earned about $55 a week sewing cloth bags at a local factory. Just two years earlier, the same woman had been able to earn twice that amount sewing jeans in a Levi's' factory, but that plant had shut down and moved its jobs to Central America and Asia. The same article profiled Lisa Rahman, a 19-year-old garment factory worker in Dhaka, Bangladesh, who made fifteen cents an hour in 2002. She could only afford to eat chicken along with her usual meal of rice about once every two months, had never gone to school, ridden a bicycle or seen a movie, and lived with her parents and two young relatives in one room amid the slums. She often worked from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m., seven days a week, and had done so since she was ten years old. One of Lisa's most recent jobs had been making a Winnie the Pooh shirt that the Walt Disney Company sold in the United States for $17.99. In the wake of the negative publicity generated by the article, Disney's licensee subsequently suspended its work at that factory; licensees in today's globalized garment industry work much the same way as subcontractors did in Triangle Shirtwaist Company. Disney remains at least partially removed from the manufacturing process—and such scandals—if the responsibility for working conditions and wages is passed onto their licensees.177
Anti-sweatshop activists invoke human rights as the central principle of their cause. Sweatshops, they argue, not only take the place of domestic jobs in the U.S., but they employ desperately poor people in working conditions that are often unsafe, unclean, and exploitative. "In the cold war," explained Michael Posner, head of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, "the main issue was how do you hold governments accountable when they violate laws and norms. Today the emerging issue is how do you hold private companies accountable for the treatment of their workers at a time when government control is ebbing all over the world, or governments themselves are going into business and can't be expected to play the watchdog or protection role."178 Activists also argue that Americans have the power to determine "what comes into our country." The Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (or UNITE, which merged with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union—or HERE—in 2004) has represented most American apparel workers in recent lawsuits. Jay Mazur, UNITE's retired president, compares sweatshop-produced goods to cocaine, and argues that if we can legislate against the latter, we can also legislate against the former.179 In April 2003, the 600-member American Apparel and Footwear Association called on the U.S. government to ban imports of apparel, textiles and footwear from the Asian country of Myanmar (a.k.a. Burma), where a military regime had seized power and was committing numerous human rights abuses, including the use of forced labor and child labor. Association President Kevin Burke explained why his group of retailers—who would benefit from the lower labor costs under such oppressive regimes—took the unprecedented step of calling for federal action: Myanmar's military junta had expressed a "total disdain" for basic human rights, and by allowing the country's rulers "to produce products and send them here, we're putting money in their pocket while they're taking money out of other people's pockets and abusing them."180 Thus the amount of net gain from cheap labor does not always prove worthwhile for retailers, if the bad press from countries like Myanmar provokes consumer boycotts on stores that carry the sweatshop-produced goods. Yet the lure of inexpensive goods and maximized profit margins remains very strong. Despite U.S. efforts to isolate the Myanmar government and ban new investment in the country, in 2002, the U.S. imported $350 million in goods from Myanmar, mostly apparel and textiles.181
Despite the manifest problems with sweatshop labor, observers like New York economist Michael M. Weinstein argue that it would be "unconscionable to clamp down on sweatshops" that make foreign worker's lives "better than they would otherwise be."182 Weinstein also points out that "if we bar low-cost goods from abroad, it would be the poorest among us who depend on these products who would be punished most harshly."183 Constant pressure from investors to maximize profits, and from consumers to find good bargains, is likely to ensure that sweatshops will not go away any time soon.