Fashion darling Alexander Wang was served this month with a $50 million lawsuit from a man who used to sew his clothes. Wenyu Lu describes having worked 25 hours continuously without break or overtime pay in an unventilated, windowless part of Wang’s New York City design firm, and claims he was ultimately fired after voicing his complaints to management and filing for worker’s compensation. He sued, and dozens of his fellow employees signed on. The headlines that have rocked the fashion world put a name to Lu’s allegation: Wang ran a “sweatshop” in the United States of America.
Subpar working conditions in garment factories around the world have long been the subject of stateside media attention, but conditions in American factories largely slip under the radar. In fact, most consumers spy a label like “Made in the USA” and assume the workers who made their T-shirt are paid and treated better than most. As the Wang suit shows, even an expensive garment—an Alexander Wang tee can cost upwards of $200—doesn’t guarantee better working conditions for its producers (many of Wang’s clothes are also made in China). The truth is that U.S. sweatshops have been on the rise for the past several decades.
Today, the term “sweatshop” conjures up vague imagery of concrete floors, low lights, heat, and, well, sweat. The term used to refer to a much more specific work environment: Its origins date back to the “sweated” trades of 19th-century Britain. The first sweatshops were the homes of manual laborers, sewers, cobblers, and furniture makers who worked for piece rate wages from the small spaces of their homes. Later, “sweatshop” came to include overcrowded and dangerous “official” workshops. By the turn of the century, the term had expanded to mean “any factory workplace in which workers are employed for long hours at low wages and under unhealthy or oppressive conditions.”
These kinds of workplaces popped up in the United States as part of the industrial revolution, too, concentrating in big cities in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Factory managers locked doors to prevent unauthorized breaks. Safety regulations were lax. Child labor was not uncommon. This kind of neglect culminated in the disastrous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911: 146 garment New York City garment workers, mainly young women, were killed inside the blouse factory after realizing they couldn’t open the locked doors leading to fire escapes.
World War II temporarily alleviated the worst working conditions, and by the 1950s and ’60s, the booming post-war economy and a highly unionized apparel production industry rendered the American sweatshop virtually obsolete. Wages were now well above the poverty line, and unions achieved gains in health care and pension funds.
But that era of American clothing production wouldn’t last long. In Slaves to Fashion, Robert Ross writes that apparel jobs took another turn for the worse in the 1970s, thanks to the rise of globalization, weakening unions, a surplus of willing workers, and an influx of undocumented immigrants. Garment workers who could not organize made exploitation easy, a race to the bottom necessary, and the rise of a new era of sweatshops possible.
Today, Congress’ General Accounting Office provides a simple definition of “sweatshop”: “a business that regularly violates both wage or child labor and safety or health laws.” At this point, much of America’s cheapest garment production has moved overseas, but Ross estimates that as late as 2000, there were still 255,000 sweatshop workers in the United States. Sweatshops can be found in New York City, California, and Texas. Factories that produce military uniforms are listed by watch groups as repeat offenders.
Meanwhile, watchdog organizations like the Fair Labor Association and The Worker Rights Consortium are spread so thin around the globe that inspections of domestic factories and workshops remain rare. A national code of conduct and laws to enforce it are still elusive. Corporate codes of conduct generally bind only the brand and the subcontracted vendor, leaving little to no incentive for the vendor to adhere to oftentimes vague guidelines that are never subject to outside accountability. Consumers keep buying clothes without really wanting to know who made them.
It doesn’t have to stay that way. The U.N. Global Compact plans to implement an industry-wide code of conduct this year, with details to be announced at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit and Rio+20. The code could lead to a universal “sweatshop-free” label that’s clear to off-the-rack consumers, a move that would throw a wrench in the cheap fashion race to the bottom. For the movement to be effective, every part of the fashion food chain must establish a commitment to accountability and transparency in the fight for workers’ rights, for garment workers both documented and not, at home and abroad. The real story of the working conditions at Alexander Wang’s camp is still up for debate—Wang denies he runs a sweatshop. But if Wenya Lu hadn’t spoken out, most consumers would never have begun to think about how their American T-shirt was made.
Following the recent announcement that it was joining the ranks of protesters in the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) battle, Wikipedia officially began a 24-hour online blackout at the stroke of midnight East Coast United States time, today, January 18th. This move aligns the largest online encyclopedia with a host of opposition to the SOPA and PIPA legislation, who believe that the legislation, if passed, would infringe upon the free exchange of information that many value. The bill would permit the Justice Department of the United States and content owners the ability to seek a court order that would require search engines to block certain results that are associated with pirated material. The protest has understandably garnished hardened opinions on both sides of the spectrum, with Wikipedia’s actions positioning it as one of the more notably outspoken and extreme measures in protest. More information can be found here. To let your voice be heard in opposition of the movement, join the petition to prevent SOPA today.
Make sure you’re signing petitions and calling your elected officials.
via Oakland North
The New Parkway Speakeasy Theater has a new home.
On Friday afternoon, J Moses Ceaser, the managing partner of a small group of investors called New Parkway Entertainment, signed a 13-year lease to open a new movie theater right off Telegraph Avenue near downtown Oakland, at 474 24th Street. The new theater will employ the same concept that worked so well that previous location on the east side of Lake Merritt—cheap tickets, pizza, cold beer and room full of couches.
“We’re excited to get something done,” Ceaser said. “Exhausted, but it looks like we’re going to move forward with things.”
The New Parkway doesn’t have a name yet—Ceaser said “Parkway” will be in the name somehow, and the place will likely be called “The New Parkway”—and the plain brown building looks like a warehouse, not the two-screen movie house it will soon become. Ceaser said he likes the location—close to public transportation and in the Art Murmur area for First Fridays—and that he hopes to have the theater up and running in six to 10 months.
“I’m very hesitant to say for sure about anything,” Ceaser said of the timetable of opening the place, “because in the beginning of 2011, I wrote a note that said ‘This is the year the theater is going to open.’”
Read the rest of the story by Ryan Phillips at Oakland North.
Congressional approval ratings are on the rocks, hovering in or near single digits for the first time since pollsters started measuring them. But just how bad is the current congressional stalemate?
Thomas Mann, senior fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, is working on a book about Congress with a title that provides a succinct answer: It’s Even Worse Than It Looks.
In modern history, Mann says, “there have been battles, delays, brinkmanship — but nothing quite like this.”
The book, written with co-author Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, is a follow-up to a 2006 book by the pair called The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track.
Mann acknowledges there have been worse times for Congress, but he reaches back a very long way for a comparison.
“There were a few really bruising periods in American congressional history, not only the run-up to the Civil War, but also around the War of 1812,” he says.
A Gallup poll published earlier this month found that just 11 percent of Americans approve of Congress’ performance. A whopping 86 percent gave a thumbs-down. That’s the lowest rating since Gallup started taking the public pulse on this issue in 1974. A similar poll conducted by The Associated Press registered a 12 percent approval rating, and a CBS/New York Times poll in October placed Congress’ approval rating at 9 percent.
Lawmakers are acutely aware of the failing grades they’re getting from the pundits and the public alike. After punting two months down the field on the payroll tax cut, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) clearly registered his disgust.
“Washington needs to stop adding confusion and more uncertainty to people’s lives,” he said.
Mann isn’t the only one dusting off the history books for an analog to the current impasse.
“I think you’d have to go back to the 1850s to find a period of congressional dysfunction like the one we’re in today,” says Daniel Feller, a professor of U.S. history at the University of Tennessee.
Feller, who specializes in the Jacksonian, Antebellum and Civil War periods, points specifically to 1849-1860 when Congress sometimes struggled for months to even elect a speaker of the House.
Other periods of governmental deadlock include Andrew Johnson’s Reconstruction presidency, Woodrow Wilson’s conflict with Congress over the League of Nations and the fights between President Truman and the “do-nothing” 80th Congress in 1947-48.
“None of those involved the level of conflict within Congress itself that we see today,” Feller says.
In the pantheon of also-rans for least effective Congresses, Mann would add a contentious period circa 1910 when long-serving Republican House Speaker Joseph Cannon was ousted from his post mostly by renegades in his own party. There were also bruising fights over the Depression-era New Deal.
In fact, Mann points out that despite its pejorative “do-nothing” moniker, the Truman-era Congress actually did manage to pass one historic package of legislation — the Marshall Plan, which threw an economic lifeline to a Europe devastated by World War II.
“There have been plenty of times when the rhetorical heat has been high, sometimes higher than now,” Feller says. “What’s most amazing today is not fiery words, but the inability to do necessary business.”
If today’s Congress really is the least effective since before the Civil War, “it’s disappointing, but not surprising,” Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia says.
And the stalemate occurs at a time when America can afford only “the smallest margin for error,” he says.
“For most of my lifetime growing up, America was so far ahead of every other country — economically, educationally on infrastructure,” he says. “But those leads don’t exist any more.”
Warner says he’s looked for the people who say they approve of Congress’ performance.
“I go out and I ask people, ‘Are you part of the 9 percent that thinks we’re doing a good job?'” he says. “And I have yet to find anyone who will raise their hand.”
But Warner believes the tide is beginning to turn and that “more cooperation” is on some lawmakers’ lists of New Year’s resolutions.
“I am actually going into the next year more optimistic,” he said. “I know this problem isn’t going away. It’s going to require both sides being willing to take on both revenue and entitlements. I think there’s a growing recognition of that. And I’m going to hang in there.”
In 2006, Gilberto Kassab, mayor of São Paulo, Brazil, passed the “Clean City Law.” Citing growing concerns about rampant pollution in his city, Kassab decided enough was enough. But this was no ordinary piece of pollution legislation. Rather than going after car emissions or litterbugs, Kassab went after the billboards. Yes, you read that right: Kassab wanted to crack down on “visual pollution.”
Saying that visual pollution was as burdensome as air and noise pollution, Kassab banned every billboard, poster, and bus ad in São Paulo with the Clean City Law. Even business signage had to go. Within months, city authorities had removed tens of thousands of ads both big and small—much to the dismay of business owners, who said the ban would surely ruin them.
Five years later, have all the businesses in São Paulo gone under? Hardly. In fact, most citizens and some advertising entities report being quite pleased with the now billboard-less city. A survey this year found that a 70 percent of residents say the Clean City Law has been “beneficial.” “São Paulo’s a very vertical city,” Vinicius Galvao, a journalist, said in an interview with NPR. “That makes it very frenetic. You couldn’t even realize the architecture of the old buildings, because they were just covered with billboards and logos and propaganda. And there was no criteria.”
Where businesses are concerned, it turns out some advertisers are actually thankful for the ban, as it’s forced them to reevaluate and improve. “Companies had to find their own ways to promote products and brands on the streets,” Lalai Luna, co-founder of ad agency Remix,told the Financial Times last year. “São Paulo started having a lot more guerilla marketing [unconventional strategies, such as public stunts and viral campaigns] and it gave a lot of power to online and social media campaigns as a new way to interact with people.”
Anna Freitag, the marketing manager for Hewlett-Packard Brazil, said her company had never considered how inefficient billboards and the like were until they were illegal. “A billboard is media on the road,” she told the FT. “In rational purchases it means less effectiveness… as people are involved in so many things that it makes it difficult to execute the call to action.”
If you’re thinking São Paulo’s ad ban isn’t replicable in your city because it’s some South American backwater, think again. São Paulo is the largest metropolis in the Southern Hemisphere, and, with about 12 million residents, the 7th-most-populous city in the world. Big cities don’t need to plaster ads everywhere to exist—though you’d never know it looking at Times Square—and even if they did, Kassab and his supporters haven’t banned all advertising. All they’ve asked is for companies to stop cramming commercials down people’s throats while simultaneously ruining their city’s beauty.
Estimates say some Americans now look at upwards of 4,000 ads per day. When is enough enough?