A needle, a bobbin, a strike: women needleworkers in America.
A recurring characteristic of women needleworkers, from the 1900's to teh present, has been their immigrant status, often accompanied by difficulty with the English language, and sometimes by problems of "illegal" status. Thus, there is a short answer to the question as to why women continue to endure the deplorable working conditions, the pressure for impossible output quotas, and the minimal pay (or subminimal, where "off the books" employment is accepted). For such women, employment opportunities are limited, and the family need for income is often desperate.
Considering the demand for labor in the garment indsutry, it is clear that the typical small employer, contractor, or jobber, also has limited options. In automobile, steel, and other major industries, a few of the larger employers operate in an environment of high capital requirements for entery into the industry, with relatively long runs of standardized products. The resulting financial strength and political power arising from the less-competitive industry structure, has (in teh past) shielded producers' profit margins by ingibiting domestic as well as international competition, and thus has permitted substantial improvements in wages and working conditions through industry collective bargaining. In contrast, the low capital requirements of jobers serving major clothing manufacturers, and the fashion-dominated short production runs, assure a perpetual influx of small contractors into the garment industry; the resultant low profit margins in this highly competitive industry exert downward pressure on wages and discourage concern for working conditions. The rising tide of clothing imports in recent years has exacerbated the competitive pressure. In such a situation, it is not surprising that union negotiators might make concessions to preserve jobs in a particular geographical area, prompting charges of "sellout" by the predominantly female labor force, who continue to be greatly underrepresented in the union hierarchy. Thus, a purely market approach would predict that poorly educated immigrant women with language difficulties, burdened with family responsibilities, who are forced for lack of feasible alternatives to seek employment in a highly competitive industry (where firms face competition from low-wage "runaway employers" moving West or South, as well as from lower-wagfe foreign producers) would find only low wages and poor working conditions. So much for pessimism.
Where then are there grounds for optimism? It is not enough to point out that, although newly arrived workers of both sexes have historically always been subject to low wages and poor working conditions, within a generation or two, the low-ranking groups will move up. (As the studies in this collection indicate, the ethnic composition of the U.S. garment industry has changed from the Italian, Jewish, and Irish of the early 19th century to the Hispanic, Asian, and Chicano workers of the 1980's.) In the long run, we are all dead, as John Maynard Keynes noted, and, for the ill-paid, overworked women in the garment industry today, improvements are overdue. Yet, as pointed out above, given the competitive pressures, employers individually may be powerless to alter the labor contract; union power reached its zenith in the "Protocol of Peace" after the New York City strike in 1910, when employers welcomed its stabilizing influence. But because so much of the garment industry has moved South or West in recent years, New York City no longer sets the terms of labor-management relations in the industry. Under these conditions, how can one expect improvements in workers' lives?
The accounts in this volume of the dedication and perseverance of the women leaders among the garment workers--Bessie Abramovitz, Dorothy Jacobs Bellanca, Rose Pesotta-- suggest that improvements may not be impossible. Whether or no these women received their just due from the male leadership of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) or the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU), they developed their own powers, won the confidence of their coworkers, and provided role models for succeeding generations of women. Current leaders, whether male or female, must deal with the competitive structure of the clothing industry, and the increasing importance of imports from low-wage developing countries. To this reviewer, it seems entirely possible that strong women leaders in the garment industry can today use the growing political power of women to protect workers of both sexes from the dehumanizing aspects of excessive competition.
Political action could achieve a strengthening of the regulatory powers of State and Federal agencies, enforcement of existing factory laws, and stricter inspections for conformity to standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for workplace safety. Such policies, coupled with negotiated import limitations, could bring a degree of order to the wage structure and working conditions of the industry. Noting the resurgence of sweatshops in New York and Los Angeles, where "workers from Latin America and Asia sew under conditions little better than those that so outraged early 20th century reformers," the authors of the concluding essay suggest that women are "left to rely upon women's traditional sources of support--family, religion, and a sisterhood of coworkers." Instead, a sisterhood of voters just might prove effective.