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Labor and Lace : Can an Upstart Women's Group Press a New Wrinkle into the Rag Trade Wars?

August 01, 1993|Sarah Henry | Sarah Henry is a staff writer with the Center for Investigative Reporting in San Francisco. Laura Proctor provided research on this piece. Henry's last article for this magazine was "The Poison Trail," about the smuggling of toxic trash across the U.S. - Mexico border.

A LITTLE AFTER 4 ON A FRIDAY AFTERNOON IN MARCH, about two dozen women are congregating for a workers'-rights rally in San Francisco's Union Square. As its name suggests, this is a labor landmark, but that's not why the women have chosen to meet here. Surrounding the square is one of the city's toniest shopping areas, where seductive window displays show off buttery leather, jewel-tone silks and the latest designer fashions. Today, at least for a short time, the protesters are hoping to compete with the merchandise.

The women come from all over the map. There are jeans-clad Asian worker advocates, button-wearing lesbians, young black women sporting cornrows and hoop earrings, and middle-aged Latinas in heavy makeup. Some are college-educated lawyers, others are former seamstresses, all of them are seasoned activists. With quiet efficiency, they arm themselves with picket signs, glance over a sheet of protest chants and fall in for the "action."

Like battle flags, lacy dresses strung up on poles lead the line of women that weaves through frazzled shoppers and curbside vendors. They carry handwritten "boycott" signs and bright red banners painted with black Chinese and Korean characters for "justice" and "solidarity." In front of nearby department stores the women form orderly pickets, handing out flyers to curious passersby.

The leaflets carry a simple message. The women are protesting against Jessica McClintock, whose clothing company does a reported $145 million annually turning out her trademark romantic dresses. The rally, organized by Oakland-based Asian Immigrant Women Advocates, is part of AIWA's 6-month-old national boycott of McClintock. The designer has refused the nonprofit group's demand that she pay back wages owed to garment workers stiffed when one of her sewing contractors went belly-up.

Jessica McClintock Inc., however, is not the protesters' only target. AIWA advocates admit that the company is not legally liable for the back wages, but they have singled out McClintock in a calculated effort to highlight what they say are unfair--and often illegal--labor practices that plague the entire garment industry. AIWA's actions coincide with a renewed regulatory drive to clean up the industry by targeting manufacturers. The group wants the manufacturers, who contract out the bulk of their work to independent sewing shops, to be accountable for the workers who sew their clothes. AIWA also wants retailers, consumers and politicians to face up to an age-old injustice: the usually invisible plight of low-income, mainly immigrant women workers, many of whom toil in Dickensian conditions in sweatshops across the country.

In front of Macy's and Nordstrom, stores that carry McClintock lines, the women take turns leading chants, and they all stay cool when police arrive to keep an eye on things. Their final destination is a strip of chic boutiques on nearby Sutter Street, where they set up in front of McClintock's store, a pseudo-stone palace. The shop has just closed for the day, but that doesn't dampen the enthusiasm of the protesters. The fluttering dresses--McClintock designs--are lifted into the sky, and the chant rises: "Jessie, Jessie, stitch by stitch; sweatshop labor made you rich."

YOUNG SHIN, A DIMINUTIVE WOMAN IN A BLACK SILK DRESS AND A vibrant jacket woven with black, gold and red threads, has her ear to the telephone as she beckons a visitor into her office in Oakland's Chinatown. Shin has a clear view of AIWA's cluttered conference room, where one staff member is juggling incoming calls while designing a "Boycott McClintock" flyer, and another is offering suggestions and hurriedly eating a late lunch of Chinese noodles.

Shin wraps up her phone conversation and then pauses to collect her thoughts. Her manner is crisp but friendly. She recalls that it was a routine work day in May last year when 12 Chinese seamstresses from the Lucky Sewing Co. showed up at her office to ask for help. The women had been stuck with a string of bad checks, amounting to about $15,000, for work they had done from April, 1991, to February, 1992. "They were really upset; they felt cheated," says Shin. Some of the women said they were desperately trying to make ends meet.

The seamstresses described the conditions under which they worked: 10- to-12-hour days, six or seven days a week, with no health benefits. They were paid by the piece and no matter how hard they worked, they rarely made $4.25 an hour, the federal minimum wage, and they were never paid overtime--both of which are mandated by labor laws. "When you break the money we earn, it contains blood and sweat," says Fu Lee (not her real name) later through an interpreter, "so we use every penny very carefully."

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