For the past sixty years the garment industry, which was a major provider of jobs in New York, has withered away to a minor economic actor. Over that time the jobs that provided a good income to many immigrant people just beginning life in New York have moved overseas. The stories we have seen in these last months of the death of 1,100 garment workers in the illegally built factory in Bangladesh are representative of the result of the global relocation of the garment industry. It is a story of the inexpensive clothes we buy in our malls mixed with the travails of the poorly protected workers who produce them overseas.
I took part in a version of this story over sixty years ago when I spent three summers during my college days working for the Dress Joint Board of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in New York City. The Dress Joint Board, for which I worked during the summers of 1947 through 1949, was composed of Locals 22 and 89. I was assigned to interview workers who were applying for union benefits, and, if time would permit, to do research on the background of the union membership. The Local 22 workers I came into contact with were of Puerto Rican, African-American, and European Jewish background. The workers of Local 89 were largely of Italian descent.
My daily work was to interview workers who were seeking unemployment benefits during lay-offs and others who were applying for specific health care benefits. This required checking against the manufacturer’s payroll to determine how long the worker was employed and whether the manufacturer had been paying the special assessment. The stream of people I interviewed was like a cast of characters out of Leo Rosten’s “The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N.” Hyman Kaplan was a garment worker who was learning to speak English in a night school. He spoke his own version with amazing and unbelievable creativity. Kaplan’s fellow immigrant classmates added their own peculiar interpretations and flavor to the beginner’s English language class.
Those summers I spent working at the Dress Joint Board were a continual replay of the book. I heard more variations of accents and more unique spoken English than I had heard in my lifetime, and I had grown up in an immigrant neighborhood. The working people I encountered were just getting a start in the economy, and with the protection of the union, were representative of the vitality of the garment industry and of the economic health of New York in the 1940s.
There was also another side to the story. Garment workers were also subject to the conditions of a highly competitive industry. Dress manufacturing is made of numerous small shops, and very mobile. The small “fly-by-night” operations are difficult to track and are prone to “sweat shop” conditions. This is where the trade union stepped in – to assure just wages and safe work conditions. Many garment manufacturers operated a step ahead of union organizers.
I became aware of this when less than a decade after I had worked in the garment district, I moved with my wife and children to Asia. On a trip to Hong Kong in the 1950s a Chinese friend took me on a visit to small dress-making operation in a high-rise building, which produced clothes for the U.S. Market. It was a shop similar to the ones I had known in New York, but the jobs which had employed the immigrants in New York, were being moved to Hong Kong. For the last sixty years this has been the nature of the garment industry.
Can this story be turned around? In an article in the February 17th issue of The Nation, the author Elizabeth Cline sees hope for a rebirth of the New York garment industry. She sets the stage by citing the colorful designer coat worn by the wife and daughter of Mayor Bill de Blasio at his recent inauguration. Cline sees in “The Economics of A Raspberry Coat” a story of the new mayor’s opportunity to restore the garment industry to New York.
Efforts are already underway, says Cline, with the move by Manufacturers New York to support fashion designers in finding the work space and the work force to produce their new clothing lines. Some of the areas for development are already in place with the creation of the sixteen industrial business zones (IBZs) set aside by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Even though Mayor Bloomberg’s plan called for the rezoning older manufacturing areas for the rebuilding of high-rise condos, the sixteen IBZs are prospective spaces for new industrial businesses with incentives in the form of technical assistance and employee training.
Under Mayor Bill de Blasio attention is being given to those areas in the metropolitan region, ie. Sunset Park in Brooklyn, where older industrial buildings can be rehabilitated and where a local work force is already existent. Alongside the beginning of an upstart new clothing industry measures are in place to modernize the industry by encouraging “the most innovative and sustainable design entrepreneurs.” In areas like Bedford-Stuyvesant plans are underway to train local people in the technology and methods now being used to modernize the garment industry.
Attention must be paid to the Hyman Kaplan’s of our day, and to assuring them a just wage and safe conditions in the their work space. And always support for the right of workers to organize, on their own behalf, and for the well-being of the industry and the economy.
(see also Chapter 14 ” A Union Summer ” in www.onthesidewalksofnewyork.com)