asian american political alliance newspaper vol.2 no.1 page 4 November 1969
A Viable Alternative For
GARMENT FACTORY WORKERS
"The situation of the garment factories in San Francisco Chinatown has been a political issue for years. In an atmosphere of conflict amongst power and interest groups such as the Six Companies, ILGWU, Teamsters, City Council, contractors, and the Hunan Rights Commission, the welfare of the garment workers has been ignored and neglected. The struggles going on in Chinatown now indicate an attempt to unionize in the main interest of the ILGWU and Teamsters; to rezone under the guise of integration; to strengthen the.strongold economic position of the contractors; and to maintain the subordination of the workers to the dictates of the Six Companies. These attempts have shown little or no concern for the woman worker’s needs or the feasibility of letting her have control of her own life and lifestyle. The rezoning issue has tried to ohscure the real problems of exploitation which exist in Chinatown.
It is common knowledge that an average garment worker earns far below minimum wage and operates under substandard conditions. In addition to this, there are unique problems which inhibit organizing workers. These include family ties between the ladies and contractors, language and ethnic barriers and the social, atmosphere of the existing shops. A lady can take time off to shop for groceries, pick up the children from school, or cook dinner for the family, whenever she desires. In many cases, when the garment worker has pre-school children, she can bring them to work and care for them at the shop.
Despite sporadic efforts in the last three decades to unionize and alleviate conditions, the strife of the garment working women has been intensified in the past year. In June, 1969, the San Francisco Labor Council approached the Chinatown Board of Supervisors with an amendment to rezone the garment shops out of Chinatown, ostensibly because they are in violation of commercial, industrial and residential districting. The International Ladies Garment Workers Union and manager Cornelius Wall precipitated the whole issue. After ten years of unsuccessful.unionization of Chinatown garment workers and feeling frustrated, Cornelius Wall set the issue of zoning the ‘sweatshop’ out of our community before the Human Rights Commission. The ILGWU justified moving the shops out of Chinatown as a healthy measure of integration which would eliminate tile sweatshopism of the existing factories. It failed to deal with reality--it would put 3000 women workers out of jobs, throwing them into a labor market where their limited sewing skills and language facility would be of little value. The ILGWU’s real interest is money. If the Chinese garment workers were part of the white market and shops, they would likely be forced to unionize and pay the $5.60 dues sought by the ILGWIJ. In the past the ILGWIJ has had little success in organizing and unionizing Chinatown workers because of communication and cultural difficulties. A basic distrust of whites and their institutions exists in Chinatown. The unions that have been established in the Chinatown area, such as Locals 8 and 101 have merely been “paper unions” which absorb the $5.60 per woman and manage to do nothing about raising pay to minimum wage or bettering working conditions. Actually the union exists in Chinatown only through employment requirements made by certain contractors. The ILGWIJ is notorious for being a powerful bossism trade union, with tendencies to negotiate with management and employers and not for workers.
Seeing that the union has worked in conjunction with the Labor Council and HBC, it is obvious that these forces are politically expedient for and instrumental to each others interests. There has been a six mouth postponement of rezoning, called by the HRC to investigate and study Chinatown’s grievances. Studies have been conducted for years; this postponement actually serves the unions. They hope the women will be more receptive to joining a union after seeing their jobs and place of work threatened, just as the contractors will be more receptive to unionism. On the HRC sit many union members—S.F. is basically a union town. Contractors have been self-interested and exploitive and carry on much off—the—record business, maintaining low wages and poor working conditions. Striking against these shops would seem ineffective because unemployment of women especially with sewing skills is so prevalent. A group of striking women would easily be replaced, so a woman had best hold on to a $50 per week job with security, rather than risk it to improve conditions.
The Asian Studies 130 class has familiarized itself with these kinds of problems in Chinatown and realizes that the women are up against wall. We have learned much about Chinatown politics, the white and Chinese ruling class, mechanics of the gament factory, unionism the superficiality of government agencies and commissions. We have been thinking about the alternatives to the better condition of the garment factory workers within the community. There have been proposals to create an all-Chinese union local in Chinatown. But this would require non-interference from existing locals and from hostile employers. Then the union would have decide or be forced to align itself with racist AFL-CIO or Teamsters.
What the Asian Studies class proposes is to initiate and build a cooperative. This would be a progressive, self-perpetuating and revolutionary alternative. In this type of organization, the workers will have the chance to partake in operations and administrative processes of the co-op. The co-op would be more than just another sub-contracted shop to some huge garment manufacturer. We want to work on the garment from start to finish, in order to cut production and tracking costs. We will design, cut, sew, and sell the garment ourselves. In other words, a vertical, operation of the desired garment from start to finish would be set up. The co-op will provide training in all areas of production and administration, in addition to sewing of garments. Hopefully the co-op would be a fluid and ‘viable force in the Chinatown community. What profit made from the sold merchandise will be returned into the operation of the co-op and given back to the workers. The cooperative will serve to educate the workers to some understanding of the intricacies and contradictions of the American economic system. The cooperative will provide the workers with a consciousness of political, social and economic problems in American society. They will be aware of how they are exploited and suppressed in their community and job.
This article has been written to solicit help from fellow Asians. We cannot implement the idea discussed above without adequate resources, including social and political. commitment and funds. We are starting by getting and gathering
all information on sewing, cutting and financing that we possibly can. We are still on a low level stage in that there are a lot of areas with which we are not familiar. We need at this time a person who has had years of experience as a tailor. We need people who are well versed in the legal proceedings for getting into business. We need people who know how to cut material. We also need people who have connections in getting sewing and cutting machines, at minimum prices. All persons interested and willing to help please contact Steve Wong in the Asian Studies Office, 3405 Dwinelle Hall, U.C. Berkeley.
We are also (as mentioned before) desperately in need of financial support. We would gladly appreciate any donations for the project. We are forthrightly sponsoring films on November 14 and 16 to raise funds. Any other fund raising ideas would be welcome, Again, contact Steve."