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Sweatshop Labor, Sweatshop Movement

Miriam Ching Yoon Louie, Sweatshop Warriors: Immigrant Women Workers Take on the Global Economy (Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 2001), 306 pages, $18.00 paper.

Bill fletcher, Jr. is National Co-Chair of the Black Radical Congress; President of the TransAfrica Forum; and a member of the Board of Directors of the Monthly Review Foundation.

The reemergence of sweatshops in the United States has taken many people by surprise. It was commonly assumed that sweatshops disappeared years ago and that their presence would no longer be accepted. This proved to be fatally wrong.

Sweatshops should remind one that capitalism is analogous to those animals that simply cannot be domesticated. Regardless of the restraints put on it, if that animal can break out of its cage, it will emerge with all teeth bared.

Sweatshops are an instrument for capitalist development. The oppressive exploitation of workers under the horrendous conditions of sweatshops permits the capitalist to accumulate sufficient profits to expand production and better compete with other capitalists. Extremely low pay and terrible working conditions are the keys to their success.

The restrictions on sweatshops in the United States came about largely through the organization of workers (into unions) and the efforts of their political allies, who would not tolerate such institutions. It was the power of organization that limited the scope of sweatshops during the middle years of the twentieth century. And, it has been the declining power of workers and the development of neoliberal globalization that have nurtured the renewal of the sweatshop, which has risen from its ashes like the proverbial phoenix.

Miriam Ching Yoon Louie offers an important and insightful look at sweatshops in the United States. This examination is also filled with hope, for Louie not only takes the reader through a study of why sweatshops are back in style, but focuses on the sweatshop workers who are organizing themselves to fight for their rights and dignity.

Sweatshop Warriors is a study that unites the personal and political. The author focuses on different experiences of various ethnic groups —why they came to the United States and the realities of their existence in the U.S. working class. She lets the reader into the world of sweatshop workers, and particularly their efforts at self-organization. The stories, directed at the reader but not interpreted by the author, are sources of real inspiration. These are the voices of working class leaders thinking through their situations and the strategies necessary to improve their lives.

That these leaders are women is of particular significance. The stories related and the analysis offered do not ignore the male supremacy and patriarchy with which these women must deal. In some cases, the women described in this book came to the United States before their families; in other cases, they followed them. Often, they have been expected to provide family income as well as take care of everything else, including childcare, cooking, cleaning, and nurturing in general. It is this reality that makes the organizations discussed especially interesting. Some of the organizations noted are run by women, and many have a majority of women members. They have structured themselves to address the issues which women workers face, not only in the workplace, but also in the community.

Sweatshop Warriors has an additional value in that it puts the immigrant question squarely on the table. For many black Americans, the matter of immigration is a sore point insofar as we are often led to believe that we are largely in competition with immigrants. Louie’s analysis puts this in a larger context.

First and foremost, capitalism engenders competition—not only among capitalists but also among workers. Capitalists thrive when workers compete among themselves for limited resources. Second, and a fact that should not be lost on anyone, U.S. capitalism—which is a racialized capitalism—creates ethnic niches. These niches tend to evolve over the years. Thus, janitors in New York City, by way of example, were largely Irish in the early twentieth century; African-American in the middle part of the twentieth century; and mainly Latino as we pass into the twenty-first century. This is about the capitalists finding the workers they believe to be the most vulnerable, and using them.

Louie identifies several workforces that the larger society has declared to be vulnerable: Chinese, Mexican, and Korean workers. These workers came to the United States both legally and illegally. As Louie reminds the reader, this is not a simple equation of “everyone wants to be in America,” but rather, as she quotes from immigrant activists in Britain, “We are here because you were there.” To put it in other terms, immigrants from the global South are here in the United States because of the direct role that the United States has played in destroying their nations’ economies and subverting their efforts at sovereignty.

Sweatshop Warriors is important for all of these and many other reasons. For black America, an informed discussion of immigration is badly needed. Immigration, particularly from the global South/Third World, tells us much about how the United States is changing politically and demographically. It speaks to the question of potential allies for black America in our efforts to transform this country.

There is also the story of an emerging labor movement that is broader than those workers currently organized in official trade unions. Louie introduces this movement and convincingly demonstrates that these may be some of the key forces that, along with black workers, form the basis for a revitalized trade unionism.

Miriam Ching Yoon Louie is to be applauded for this book. Activists should make it a point to study it.

2002, Volume 53, Issue 10 (March)
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