American Apparel's Labor Pains

Sometimes those who you think are your enemy could in fact be your ally, and when it comes to the thousands of undocumented, mostly female garment workers toiling in Los Angeles's La Costura, they could sure use some more friends.

This week America's largest employer of garment workers, American Apparel, based in downtown Los Angeles, is being forced to fire up to 1800 of its workers, because they are undocumented.

At a time when unemployment in this country is at its highest point in twenty-five years, and many of these workers have held jobs at the factory for over ten years, this unprecedented move by the Obama administration is raising eyebrows. Even the Mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa called it "devastating."

Clearly, U.S. immigration policy needs a serious overhaul, but what happened at American Apparel is not necessarily a case of simple injustice or botched policy. While Dov Charney, the flamboyant and controversial owner (not without his own legal problems) eschews this latest attack on his company, I made a film about American Apparel over two years ago, called NO SWEAT, which can be seen as a prequel to what is happening there now.

The film looks at two garment factories in Los Angeles, American Apparel and SweatX, both trying to introduce humane working conditions into an industry notorious for exploiting its workers. The major difference between the two companies was that one of them, SweatX was launched by $2.5 billion in venture capital from ice-cream maverick Ben Cohen, opening with great fanfare as a union shop, while the other, American Apparel, was built from the ground up with little outside investment. It was also non-union. Two years after making the film, only one of them is still in business, and business is booming.

Initially attracted to American Apparel because of its claim to "sweatshop-free" manufacturing, I began visiting the factory weekly, interviewing Dov and his workers, who at the time numbered less than 1,000. Dov used to joke that the name of his company was ironic, given that most of his employees were not, in fact American. Much of his upper-management and design staff hailed from his native Canada, presumably on work visas, and his garment workers were predominantly from Latin American and Mexico. While filming there I also met garment workers from Russia, the Ukraine, even China. Back then, workers at American Apparel who were illegal had a kind of mythical status. There is a remarkable scene in NO SWEAT of Dov, a self-proclaimed Pied Piper of the Undocumented, leading hundreds of giddy workers on a Labor Day march through downtown Los Angeles, sporting bright orange T-shirts and signs with the words "Legalize LA," branding American Apparel's brazen attitude towards current immigration law.

Yet as I spent more time at the factory and took the time to meet workers off-site in their homes, oftentimes windowless garages, or dilapidated, overcrowded apartment complexes, I learned that all was not as it seemed at American Apparel. Even with the company's "Legalize LA" language, being undocumented was at the core of the workers' unease. Yes, they told me, they usually make a higher wage than we did at other garment factories, but the wage was based on how fast they worked, and fluctuated from hour to hour. Workers felt pressured to compete against each other, in pod-like manufacturing systems, and there was a high level of turnover for those who couldn't handle the pace. Although benefits have changed since that time, in 2006, there was no retirement plan or comprehensive health-care plan in place, workers were encouraged to buy into the "healthy families," plan, the low-wage, public health care plan paid for by California tax payers, not American Apparel. In addition, abusive supervisors led to a group of disgruntled workers approaching the labor union UNITE.

I documented an extremely contentious organizing campaign that ultimately ended up in failure because many of the workers who had signed cards to join the union later rescinded them under pressure from other workers and company management. In a bizarre reversal of the famous Norma Rae scene, workers are called out into the parking lot to be lectured to on megaphones, some of them waving hand-painted signs in Spanish that read: "Drugs, Guns and Unions...they are all killers." Filming this (with a smug Dov hovering in the shadows of the building, claiming the workers had organized this spectacle themselves), I wondered what protection these workers had for the future, given they were not only without papers, but without a collective bargaining agreement.

Now, several years later, American Apparel is certainly no stranger to public scrutiny and legal wrangles, from Dov's sexual harassment lawsuits to Woody Allen's $5 million out of court settlement for unlawful use of his image for advertising, to claims of fraud from an insurance company. Yet American Apparel may have finally met its match in the Department of Homeland Security.

But here's the ultimate irony of American Apparel: while thumbing their noses at organized labor, they were also turning their backs on a natural ally for immigration reform. In fact, the very union they chased off their premises is now one of the most outspoken on immigrant rights. Granted UNITEHERE is undergoing its own internal crisis, but John Wilhelm, the President of UNITEHERE has been and continues to be a highly-respected, leading advocate for undocumented workers in this country. Wilhelm is widely acknowledged as the key labor leader behind the AFL-CIO's historic reversal of its immigration policy in 2000, which called for legalization for immigrant workers in the United States and repeal of the dysfunctional I-9 employer sanction system of workplace immigration enforcement. UNITEHERE also hosted a National Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride in 2003, modeled after the historic civil rights bus rides through the South. As a leading spokesperson for the National Immigration Forum, a group of business, religious, union and conservative leaders, Wilhelm has said "Immigration reform is a necessity in order to fix the American economy."

In addition, LA County's Federation of Labor, under the leadership of Marie-Elena Durazo, not only was the first major voice in the labor movement to endorse Obama, (and the Administration has not forgotten this) she has been relentless in calling for immigrant workers, union or non-union to have the same rights as all American workers, regardless of their status.

While Dov may have been able to "protect" his workers from organized labor, he was ultimately unable to protect them from labor law. He could have used a friend in Wilhelm, had he been willing to see past his own hubris.

"I thought I was living the American Dream," one of the workers in my film tells me, speaking as a union-employed worker at SweatX. But when the factory closed, she was yet again unemployed, facing an uncertain future. Union or no union, being an undocumented, female garment worker in downtown Los Angeles means you may just be one of the most vulnerable workers in America, caught in an unnecessary chasm between a do-good employer and an influential labor union, who should be joining forces when it comes to solving the immigrant labor crisis.

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