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The Hidden Injuries of Balance

The committee here from the Clothing Manufacturers Association are not in a position to give evidence concerning the so-called “sweating system.” We are manufacturers. We give our work out by contract. If any pernicious system exists we do not know anything about it.

—Lewis Hornthal, president of the CMA, before Congress, 1892

By some grim stroke of luck, the sweatshop reemerged as a cause célèbre a few years ago when California labor officials raided the now-notorious El Monte garment factory on the outskirts of Los Angeles. In this virtual prison, dozens of Thai immigrants, mostly women, toiled in conditions little better than slavery, sewing sportswear day and night for such concerns as Montgomery Ward, Mervyn’s, B.U.M., and High Sierra. Shortly thereafter, thanks largely to a skillful campaign by union activists to publicize contemporary sweatshop outrages, Americans were treated to the rather surreal spectacle of cherished celebrities stunned by a temporary disordering of the consumerist chain of being. As Michael Jordan shrugged at the lot of Nike’s subcontracted workers in Indonesia, as cloying rag impresario Kathie Lee Gifford tearfully remonstrated that she just didn’t know, the sweatshop seemed destined, if not to spur a national examination of conscience, then at least to provide good tabloid TV.

Joining the media cavalcade a little late, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History tiptoed off the reservation of polite consensus history last year and staged Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A History of American Sweatshops, 1820-Present. (The show ended its run in D.C. this past December, and is tentatively scheduled to alight in Los Angeles at the Museum of Tolerance in September of this year.) In defiance of industry trade groups and congressional blowhards, the official center of American historical consciousness at first seemed determined to lift the shroud from the history of this international scourge. In the end, however, those who hoped the show might resurrect the spirit of the Popular Front thirties—not to mention those who anticipated more cannon fodder for the culture wars—have reason to feel a little cheated. Between a Rock and a Hard Place turns out to be a underwhelming piece of moral clock-punching. The exhibit, curator Peter Liebhold told me, “will make people realize that decisions made in government, workplaces and businesses affect other people’s lives in ways not apparent at first glance.” Given such a ringing sales pitch, tourists could be forgiven for sneaking off around the corner to have a second look at the Swamp Rat Drag Racer.

Between a Rock and A Hard Place is rich in the thingness of American history, which is what the Smithsonian does best. Visitors to the NMAH have long paraded back and forth before steam engines, turbogenerators, centrifugal pumps, combines, bridges, the two-story pendulum, and the big locomotives, a great array meant to assure us that our City upon a Hill throbs not merely with republican virtue but with dynaflow generators and internal combustion. The sweatshop hall houses objects of lesser stature and bulk. Among the delights are antique sewing machines, shears and cutters from the turn-of-the-century garment trade, union banners, falsified time cards, massive black-and-white photos of nineteenth century garment factories, clothes made in modern sweatshops, a steel straight-backed chair of the sort that workers fold themselves into for ten- or twelve-hour shifts. The exhibit’s centerpiece features reconstructed work stations from the El Monte sweatshop, along with a video in which several workers speak about their ordeal behind its barbed-wire and chain-link fence.

Walking through the Smithsonian in that habitual, sleepy museum daze, one begins to realize that while the exhibit can show us where the bodies are buried, it falters on the crucial matter of apportioning blame.

For the most part the exhibit rehearses a fairly standard account of labor history. Sweatshops, we learn, began in the homes of poor and immigrant seamstresses, who worked from dawn to dusk stitching together pre-cut fabric for shop owners. As the industry consolidated, large workloads were contracted out to fly-by-night operators, often immigrants themselves, who set up shops in tenement apartments and crumbling walkups all over America’s industrial ghettoes. Unions like the Ladies’ Garment Workers arose around the turn of the century to challenge the clothing companies on wages, hours and workplace conditions. There were big strikes, and the 1913 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York—which killed 146 young, mostly Eastern European immigrant women, many of whom were forced to leap from the windows because management kept the doors locked—prompted an outpouring of public disgust and outrage, and eventually led to a number of laws enforcing building codes and workplace inspections. In the thirties, union organizing and laws enacted under the New Deal combined to virtually stamp out sweated garment production in the United States.

It’s a nice story so far. Grandma didn’t suffer in vain. Problem is, the march of progress has halted somehow. In the last three decades sweatshops have returned to this country with a vengeance. Here, too, the exhibit does an effective and empathetic job of evoking the busy hands and bent backs of the African-American, Latino, and Asian women who replaced Eastern Europeans as the galley slaves of the neoliberal world order.

In fact, this sort of empathy seems to be what museums offer with the most zeal these days. Walking through the Smithsonian in that habitual, sleepy museum daze, one begins to realize that while the exhibit can show us where the bodies are buried, it falters on the crucial matter of apportioning blame. One looks for names to be named but instead finds only vague evocations of a “complex” realm of abstract forces and the vagaries of human nature. In an introductory statement Liebhold remarks that “sweatshops are often discussed as good versus evil, but the issue is much more complex.” Nearly the first words out of NMAH Director Spencer Crew’s mouth at the opening press conference championed the show’s “balanced presentation” of a complicated issue. Balance means, in the evasive language of the exhibit’s signage, that manufacturers and retailers don’t actively encourage sweated labor, as Lewis Hornthal might have said; they “take advantage” of it.

Curator Harry Rubenstein told me that he and his colleagues had tried to emphasize the way sweatshops have stayed the same over the last 170 years. However, in avoiding detailing and analyzing the economic changes over that period, the exhibit trades a structural argument for an experiential mélange. Often, one is left thinking that it’s merely “bad people” who make sweatshops happen. Or, consider such mush as this: “Today’s restructuring of the apparel industry is influenced by offshore manufacturing, changes in retailing and inventory practices, and the need to fill orders quickly.” One is left with the impression that sweatshops are a result of, in historian Mike Wallace’s words, mere “immanent tendencies” working themselves out, rather than the concerted efforts of the corporate class to increase profits. As with most political discourse these days, analysis of the sustained attack by corporate lobbies on government regulation and union organizing—the two most powerful safeguards against sweatshop abuses—is hardly mentioned, much less evaluated. Little or no attention is given to the garment industry’s crackdown on unions, nor to the Taft-Hartley Act, nor to the deregulation craze spurred by corporate lobbies in the last two decades, nor to the defunding of the National Labor Relations Board.

In a telling moment, the El Monte video shows a California law-enforcement official struggling to come to grips with what he views essentially as a civil rights situation, a problem of “human beings enslaving other human beings.” Clearly that is the case, but understanding the El Monte sweatshop as just that gives us no clue why sweated labor continues to churn out Disney jammies and Nike Air Jordans. People can enslave other people in California today not because some high-minded notion of human rights is missing, but because for more than thirty years the dominant interests in this country have systematically attacked the rights of labor to organize and bargain for decent wages and working conditions.

Occasionally, however, Between a Rock and a Hard Place affords glimpses of a workplace horror that the most evasive humanism can’t paper over. Barely visible in the lower corner of a display on globalization (which helpfully identifies NAFTA and other free-trade agreements as “influences” on “manufacturers’ decisions to source production overseas”) is a small reproduction of a 1991 advertisement in Bobbin, a garment industry trade magazine. Pictured is one Rosa Martinez, a Salvadoran garment worker who, the ad announces, “you can hire … for 33 cents an hour.”

We can primp, profile, and accessorize, of course, safe in the knowledge that sweated labor is a “moral outrage” and a “blight” that responsible manufacturers are hard at work eradicating.

It’s a fair bet that if the textile titans have lost any sleep over Between a Rock and a Hard Place, it was the thought of Rosa Martinez starting a union, not the Smithsonian’s curators, that disturbed their slumber. When word got out of plans for the exhibit two years ago, trade groups such as the American Apparel Manufacturers Association and the National Retail Federation complained, predictably, that sweatshops were not a “suitable” topic for the Smithsonian. More specifically, in the words of the NRF’s Pamela Rucker, they felt helpless to “counter the powerful impact of those horrific pictures from El Monte.” Naturally, industry lobbyists on Capitol Hill started to bully the Smithsonian into abandoning the show. In the fall of 1997, Ilse Metchek of the California Fashion Association threatened a replay of the Enola Gay imbroglio, in which veterans groups and their allies in Congress browbeat the National Air and Space Museum into bowdlerizing its show on Hiroshima.

Such bravado was as unnecessary as it was fatuous. Within a few months the NRF had changed its mind and even decided to chip into the exhibit. (And why not? It works with Congress.) By the show’s opening last April, a “small group” of companies and a trade association, including Levi Strauss, Kmart, Kathie Lee Gifford of Wal-Mart, Malden Mills, and the National Retail Federation, had dropped $76,500 on the show. (By comparison, UNITE kicked in $25,000 and the Labor Department ponied up $5,000, while the Smithsonian itself spent $117,000.) What their money bought them was a few minutes of hopped-up corporate can-doism shamelessly appended to the exhibit as the apparel industry’s “perspective” on the sweatshop issue. A promotional video produced by an industry “think tank” called TC2, running on constant loop, repeats the mantra justifying sweatshop production: Look how much fun life can be for you if you just let the free flow of capital take its course. You being, of course, not a worker but a supplicant to the bounty of commodity fetishism.

A slick piece of work by museum standards, accounting for 15 percent of the show’s budget, the video essentially negated the rest of the exhibit. In sharp contrast to the plodding pace and equivocal voice of the other displays, the video beams breathlessly about an exciting, fast-paced garment industry uniting fashion and technology and empowering the hard-working, dedicated people who “make the difference.” Those people are, of course, the satisfied and oddly gleeful workers who are pictured operating massive, silent machines in clean, white workspaces, playing volleyball by a manmade office-park lake and getting pumped in a fluorescent company gym. It’s all clean white tile, lights and the glamour of the runway and the boutique. Yes, we all eagerly await the day, probably by (when else?) “the year 2000,” when we can “walk into our local mall,” step into a private booth, have our measurements scanned, select from a menu the look that just happens to complement our very own idiosyncracies, and then saunter home, content that a new self will appear on our doorstep in a few days’ time. We can primp, profile, and accessorize, of course, safe in the knowledge that sweated labor (flashing images of a sweatshop in some grainy, low-contrast slum world somewhere not where we are) is a “moral outrage” and a “blight” that responsible manufacturers are hard at work eradicating.

This utterly irrelevant and self-serving buncombe is matched by the obsequious doublespeak in the “statements of concern” that close the show. While UNITE President Jay Mazur and Julie Su, a cofounder of Sweatshop Watch and an adviser to the exhibit, weigh in with attacks on the industry that are quite direct compared to the exhibit itself, Kathie Lee Gifford shamelessly promotes herself and her programs for kids in the ghetto, and Levi Strauss and Kmart tout their voluntary workplace monitoring policies. Maria Echaveste, a representative of President Clinton’s sweatshop task force, gravely confirms the administration’s commitment to reducing the scourge of sweatshops.

The Hornthals of our day count on the fact that public institutions such as the Smithsonian are held in thrall by the bloodless calling of “objectivity” and “balance.”

This, then, is balance and complexity at its most sincere: look at the different “opinions,” all the perspectives from which to view those embarrassing sweatshops. All things are equal, the forces are all arrayed—just like on the evening news—now go ahead, make up your own mind. As we weigh our options—sweatshops are: a) bad, b) really not that much of a problem, c) unfortunate, d) soon to be a thing of the past, e) a natural feature of the global economy, f) some muddled combination of any of the above—we’d do well to remember that according to the Department of Labor at least half of the nation’s twenty-two thousand garment factories in 1996 were in violation of wage and safety laws seriously enough to merit the label “sweatshops.” And recently—some nine months after Between a Rock and a Hard Place opened—anti-sweatshop forces filed a billion-dollar class-action lawsuit against eighteen major clothing retailers and manufacturers, including Tommy Hilfiger, the Gap, J. Crew, and Wal-Mart. According to the suit, these companies have conspired to keep imported Chinese and South Asian workers in involuntary servitude in sweatshops on the Pacific island of Saipan. For the record, Saipan is a U.S. commonwealth, so anything made there can bear the label “Made in the U.S.A.”

It doesn’t take much to convince people that sweatshops are morally wrong, but it’s quite another thing to reveal the political economy by which seemingly neutral forces shuttle capital and migrant labor across cities, borders, and oceans. As a title, Between a Rock and a Hard Place is no doubt intended to describe the dilemma people of good will—in unions, in industry, in government—are supposed to face with regard to sweated labor. But it really captures nothing so well as the Smithsonian’s refusal to judge. It’s relatively easy to give names to the “rock” and the “hard place” putting the squeeze on the museum—the duties of cultural authority on one hand, the limits of politics on the other—making it unlikely or impossible for this exhibit to truly dissect the sweatshop economy. The forces involved are undoubtedly “complex” in many ways. They involve unknown players, international capital flows, and multiple layers of secrecy that can only have deepened and spread to further reaches of the globe in the years since Lewis Hornthal stonewalled that Gilded Age legislature. But they are hardly unnamable. Just as they did in the last century, the Hornthals of our day count on the fact that public institutions such as the Smithsonian are held in thrall by the bloodless calling of “objectivity” and “balance.”

In the most egregious evasion of judgment, the exhibit implies that the final responsibility to bring these latter-day satanic mills to a standstill for good rests with consumers. But as more and more business drifts out to the Caribbean Basin, Southeast Asia, the maquiladoras along the Mexican border, or to any other low-wage, open-shop corporate latifundium with no pesky labor laws or government inspectors (like, apparently, the suburbs of Los Angeles), workers here and abroad do not have the luxury of “balance.” They are being brought into new world citizenship not by the abstract order of good-natured objectivity, but with the hard knowledge that they have to choose which side they’re on.