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THE MAY DAY MARCHES

Apparel Factory Chief Gives Day Off

Clothing company founder Dov Charney wields pro-immigration message by idling his downtown plant so that workers can march.

May 02, 2006|Claire Hoffman | Times Staff Writer

Dov Charney's loss for the day came to about $400,000, but he couldn't have been happier.

While his workers gathered to march through downtown Los Angeles on Monday, Charney was a few miles away in his seven-story garment factory idled by the immigrant protest.

The iconoclastic chief executive of American Apparel Inc. not only gave 3,300 of his employees the day off, but he also supplied them with T-shirts emblazoned with a pro-immigration message.

As the nation's largest garment factory, American Apparel employs a large immigrant workforce. But unlike others, the clothing manufacturer has been outspoken on the subject, building its anti-sweatshop reputation by paying thousands of immigrant workers an average of $12.50 an hour

A Montreal native, Charney relished his role Monday as a pro-immigration spokesman, spending the morning hours walking television crews through his empty factory on Alameda Street, where 9,000 items -- including brightly hued T-shirts, sweatshirts and thong underwear -- are sewn daily. But the sewing machines sat quiet, with only Charney's voice filling the production floor.

"It sends a strong message about where the company stands on this issue," Charney told a visitor. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime march. I wouldn't even want to live in L.A. were it not for the immigrant flavor."

Charney needed little prodding to share his views on immigration with a reporter. He unleashed a flood of facts and cited myriad sources for his opinions, while riffing on such topics as the Magna Carta, President Bush's speeches and the disappearance of a racial slur for Italians.

"This is part of human history. Immigrants are Americans -- that's the point. They are future Americans. We need to embrace immigrants and say, 'Hey, this is what makes L.A. so exciting!' " Charney said.

By noon, Charney had left the factory and joined his workers and their families, who had arranged to march together on Broadway. Many wore company T-shirts emblazoned with "Legalize L.A.," carried American flags and shouted "Si, se puede!"

"The standards of the company are the kind of standards we've been fighting for -- we want to make sure that all that we have at American Apparel is there for other workers at other companies," said Ruben Eustaquio, 33, who began his career at American Apparel about eight years ago sweeping floors.

Eustaquio, who now works as a customer service representative, said Charney had helped employees in their efforts to organize -- donating 7,000 T-shirts to employees, an additional 6,000 to nonprofit groups and politicians, and arranging employee schedules to make up for hours lost from the job.

American Apparel, with about 130 stores around the world, has a history of supporting May Day marches: In past years, employees were given half the day off and bused to protests.

But this year, given the political significance, Charney said, he decided he would shut down production completely -- news that was met with cheers from workers.

"Dov treats his employees as people," Eustaquio said. "We count for him, unlike other places where we would just be a number."

Carolina Crespo, a production manager, marched down the street with the others, wearing a pair of teeny track shorts and a T-shirt from American Apparel. A first-generation American and longtime company employee, Crespo, 28, said the company emphasized egalitarianism.

"We all eat in the cafeteria together -- there are no divisions."

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