Saturday, December 15, 2007

Chinatown Cooperative Garment Factory

a better garment factory

The Chinatown Co-op

Wei Min Chinese Community News. Vol 1, No. 1. October 1971. P. 3.

The Chinatown Cooperative garment factory--humming machines, laughing, talking voices. At first it looks like the other garment factories in Chinatown. But where’s the boss? Why is there free talk, workers speaking their minds, saying what they think of the manufacturers and, work?

At the Chinatown Cooperative, there is no boss. The Co-op is run and controlled by its workers. Together the workers decide what work they will do, time they will put in, and discuss the financial situation of the Co-op. When the manufacturers come in with contract work, the workers negotiate with them for the prices. They plan their own lines of clothes and arrange for the cutters and materials themselves. What brought these Chinese and Filipino women together to start their own business? Why did they pick this way of operation?


To the women of the Co-op, the factory is their alternative to the exploitative work conditions that face garment workers in other factories. It means a step to self-pride, reap the benefits of their labor, and eliminating the middle man or contractor who decides the pay and work conditions of the workers.

Much has been learned about the competitive nature of the garment industry and the myth that the U.S. encourages the development of small private businesses. And still much more is to be learned about the channels a small business can use in order to succeed, something that has always been kept from the Chinatown community-at-large. But the Co-op workers and students are determined that the factory will succeed. They want to set an example for other workers in Chinatown and encourage them to stand up to and start their own businesses, free from bosses.

Right now about 3500 women are employed in Chinatown garment factories. From one-third to one-half of San Francisco’s apparels are made by Chinatown sweatshops. The annual wholesale value of the work in Chinatown is over $15 million while the annual payroll totals only $6 million. Workers receive only $1-$2 per dress while the manufacturer will receive $12-$15. The dress will then retail at $25-$30.


The Transitory nature of fashion dictates that the apparel industry

stay away from large-scale methods of production. Instead it relies on small-scale methods of production: the small size of factories and manu­facturers, the separation of func­tions in production, and seasonal changes. The only factories which employ several hundred workers are those which produce cheap merchandise in large quantities like Levi Strauss.

The different functions of produc­tion can be seen as divided by profit levels. The manufacturer is the one who gets the materials and determines the what, when, and. where of production. He could do all the production. in his own plant, but instead he gets the materials, does the cutting, and than contracts it out for physical production. This way he is relieved of managerial decisions pertaining to labor and work conditions.

The contractor is at the next level. He bids for work from the manu­facturer and receives a certain amount for the production of the garments. The labor and management of the shop are his concern. Entry into contracting business requires little capital. The result is a large number of contractors competing among themselves. This gives the manufacturer the option to offer whatever price he wants for the work. If one contractor doesn’t take it at his price, another will. In Chinatown alone, there are 156 contract shops. If a manufacturer comes up with a “hit number”, all he has to do is add contractors rather than expand his own plant for his temporary increase in volume.

The contractor, in order to successfully compete for work, tries to decrease his labor costs. Wages are lowered and hours increased for workers. Piece-work is used in order to increase the workers’ production and not their wages.

The Chinatown Co-op is not the first time garment workers in Chinatown have organized. In the early 1800’s three guilds existed in Chinatown: Tung Yip Tong, Gwing Yee Hong and Gum Yee Hong. These guilds had memberships up to 1,000 workers. Once a worker became a guild member, he was guaranteed his basic employment rights. The worker couldn’t be fired by an employer unless his co-workers approved the action. Wage rights were recorded and registered at guild headquarters. Therefore the same work done in other factories by Chinese operators had to follow the standardized wage set by the records. If the agreement was violated, the factory owner was boycotted and blacklisted, while “scabs” were fined and expelled from the guild.

But when the garment workers became predominantly women in the 1900’s, the guilds began to lose their strength. Immigration and language pressures limited the women’s capabilities in fighting for higher wages. The guilds soon disappeared.

The union that is now trying to organize in Chinatown is the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). It ha received little support in Chinatown. Only about 700 Chinese workers are now in the union. This is because of the union’s reputation of being a “top-down” union—meaning its failure to do anything for the workers except collect $5.60 a month for dues.

The Chinatown Cooperative is a new alternative for garment workers. Not only is it the first business in Chinatown with no boss and run by its workers, but it is also the first which has people working together collectively. It is the first where workers are helping their fellow workers out in the production as well as providing a personal social life.

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