Revitalizing Industrial Relations as an Academic Enterprise
Edited by Charles J. Whalen
Chapter 11: Evolving Labor Relations in the Women’s Apparel Industry
Katie Quan INTRODUCTION Labor relations are in essence the power relationships between labor and capital. Various labor market institutions serve that power relationship, and in the twentieth century labor unions arose as the most important institution for workers to organize and bargain collectively for power. Among these unions, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) was an early champion of issues such as the eight-hour workday, the abolition of child labor, health and safety regulations, and women’s suﬀrage. For tens of thousands of immigrant women and men, the union became the ticket to the American dream – raising penniless sweatshop workers to proud middle-class citizens. The key to the ILGWU’s success was its ability to parlay public outrage over nineteenth-century-sweatshop conditions into a unique, triangular collective bargaining relationship between jobbers, contractors, and the union. As a result, by the 1950s garment workers were the second-highest-paid production workers in the country. In spite of these achievements, in the 1960s we began to hear the ILGWU protest outsourcing of apparel jobs to foreign countries where workers toiled under conditions similar to the sweatshops that the union had helped eradicate. In 1995 we even heard of Los Angeles garment workers who had been enslaved – smuggled in from Thailand under false pretenses, held under armed guard behind razor-wire fences, and paid less than 50 cents per hour. What happened to the power that led to such impressive union victories only a few decades earlier? What happened to the unique bargaining relationship that won those...
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