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Sweatshop Warriors: Immigrant Women Workers Take On the Global Factory.

By Miriam Ching Yoon Louie

South End Press. $18

Miriam Ching Yoon Louie's Sweatshop Warriors is a powerful account of contemporary immigrant women workers' struggles in the United States. It's not your typical publication about women workers in the global economy.

Sweatshop Warriors charts a common path many tread in the new world--one that begins in farming villages, goes to sprawling cities in rapidly industrializing countries, and ends in the sweatshops, factories, restaurants, and ethnic enclaves of America. Louie chronicles the lives of contemporary Chinese, Mexican, and Korean immigrants, focusing on women workers who subsequently become "sweatshop warriors"--activists who demand better wages and living conditions for themselves and their co-workers.

For each ethnic group, Louie begins with a historical narrative that describes the economic, social, and political conditions that led women to uproot themselves. Then she offers scathing personal testimonies from the Chinese, Latina, and Korean workers and organizers.

By highlighting the improvements workers have made, Sweatshop Warriors brings the immigrant women workers' courageous struggles to life. "These grassroots immigrant women are the very heartbeat of the labor and anti-sweatshop movements," Louie writes. As two anti-sweatshop activists ourselves, we can attest to the validity of this statement.

What distinguishes Sweatshop Warriors from other books that highlight the lives of low-wage workers is its very personal illustration of the women's "painful yet liberating" transformation from worker to warrior. Louie resents that these women are often "asked to speak only as victims." They are, she rightly insists, the most essential actors in the struggle to improve their own lives.

For example, Lisa, a volunteer for the Chinese Staff and Workers Association (CSWA), was blacklisted in 1997 by the King's County Apparel Association in New York City for demanding overtime pay and shorter hours as an employee of Street Beat Sportswear.

Sixty to seventy people who worked there had to endure 100hour workweeks, sometimes at $2 an hour. Lisa, who incurred permanent back injuries, said, "We told the boss, `We just can't keep working like this. We're getting destroyed. We need a day off.' So we left. We couldn't take it anymore."

After fourteen months of struggle, the former Street Beat employees, in a joint campaign with the CSWA, prevailed. The owner, Jian Wen Liang, was arrested and arraigned on thirty-one counts of criminal labor violations. Street Beat and its contractors had to pay almost $300,000 in back wages and damages owed. And Street Beat's $75 million "SLAPP" (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) suit against workers, CSWA, the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops, and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund was dismissed.

Petra Mata had quite a different story to tell. She has been employed in a string of exploitative jobs since she was fourteen. As a Mexican immigrant, she was happy to be hired at Levi Strauss & Co.'s factory in San Antonio. The "pay was good," and Mata was promoted to supervisor after a few years. In January 1990, with no forewarning, Levi's closed its plant in San Antonio and moved production to Costa Rica, where workers earned in a day what the average San Antonio worker did in half an hour. Overnight, 1,150 people lost their jobs.

Mata helped to form a workers' organization, Fuerza Unida, to fight back. They picketed, launched a national boycott of Levi's labels, and carried out hunger strikes. In 1992, at Levi's corporate headquarters in San Francisco, the displaced workers chained themselves to the front doors.

In Oakland, California, the Asian Immigrant Women Advocates (AIWA) and laid-off workers from Lucky Sewing Company led "one of the most visible and effective actions by garment workers." They established a campaign against garment producer Jessica McClintock. Bo Yee, Fu Lee, and their co-workers were fired from Lucky Sewing Company, a subcontractor for McClintock. The owners canned them even though they were owed a significant amount of money in back wages.

Bo Yee, a Chinese immigrant, "had experience in workplace actions before immigrating to the United States," and had "attended leadership training sessions organized by the AIWA before the layoffs hit," the book notes.

Her experience proved valuable. Eventually, the two sides came to an agreement that included "an undisclosed payment of back wages, an education fund for garment workers, a scholarship fund for garment workers and their children, and a bilingual hotline for workers to report any violations of their rights in shops contracted with McClintock."

The last few chapters in Sweatshop Warriors provide an analysis of what factors allowed these campaigns to take off.

Louie makes clear that the most important factor was independent, ethnic-based organizing through workers' centers.

Workers' centers are a throwback to the organizing in the labor movement of the turn of the twentieth century. To Louie, the centers represent "an updated version of the ... social unionism that characterized the struggles of earlier waves of immigrant workers and the birth of industrial unionism."

The CSWA, AIWA, and Fuerza Unida can also be likened to the radical Asian and Latino movements of the 1960s and '70s. These movements connected first-generation immigrants with youth of color and other grassroots community organizers to develop programs that "served the people." As the United Farm Workers demonstrated in the 1960s and the sweatshop warriors are demonstrating today, immigrant labor organizing can have a dramatic impact.

The sweatshop warriors presented in this book are a crucial part of the new labor movement that seeks to improve the lives of immigrants and uses innovative strategies for organizing them.

Their stories of strength and empowerment are an inspiration to labor activists around the world.

Molly McGrath is Development Director at the Progressive Media Project, and Erin McGrath is Business and Financial Manager at the Worker Rights Consortium.
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Author:McGrath, Erin
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 2002
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