Look for the union label?

Just a quick poll: how many tee-shirts do you own? How many pairs of pants, socks, underwear?  How many hats, coats, jackets, scarves, pairs of gloves?  ‘Don’t know offhand?  Neither do I.

When I was a girl we had plenty of clothing to wear; suitable for all seasons.  But “plenty” had a different meaning in those days, when closets weren’t jam-packed with a rainbow of alternatives; and there was no overflow going to tag-sales, re-sale shops, and into the waste bin.  Buying even a shirt represented a considered investment for the average shopper, who worried about things like wearability and how many launderings it could survive.

In song and pictures, we were told to “Look for the union label…;” the message being that we could be confident in the workmanship and proud of our purchase when we knew it supported a responsible American industry.

But that was then, and this is now.

News of the Bangladeshi clothing factory fire just gets worse and worse.

At last count, the blaze that burned over Saturday and Sunday claimed the lives of 110 victims, highlighting the appalling working conditions at the factory that services U.S. retailers like Walmart, JC Penney and Kohl’s.

That the situation was not limited to a single factory was brought home when a second similar fire occurred at another Bangladeshi factory two days later.

According to Al Jazeera’s Nicolas Haque:

“These are workers who make clothes for the world’s leading brands, so it’s expected that they should have international standards in these factories,” he said. “But since 2006, 600 factory workers have died in fires like this one.”

Then, yesterday, a preliminary inquiry suggested that the fire that killed so many had been deliberately set.

Bangladesh’s interior minister, Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir, said a preliminary inquiry had concluded the fire was the result of arson. “We have come to the conclusion that it was an act of sabotage. We are finding out as of now who exactly the saboteurs are and all culprits will be brought to book,” Alamgir said.

Today, we learn that workers were prevented from fleeing the inferno by a locked gate, which represented the only means of escape.

I am not the first person to comment on the parallels to the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911.  That deadly fire took place in the middle of Manhatten, and resulted in the deaths of 146 female garment workers.

Helpless onlookers never forgot the horror of watching as countless young women leapt to their death to escape the flames.   They, too had found the only accessible exit locked-up tight.

That appalling industrial disaster brought so much attention to the plight of sweatshop workers that it prompted legislation governing factory safety standards, and led to the success of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union, a key player in the era of union power.

Yesterday, a commentator on CNN mentioned the Triangle fire and the resulting push for unionization and wondered if something similar could happen in Bangladesh.  

She seemed completely unaware of the singular irony in her remarks.

If globalization measures had not devastated the American garment industry over the past thirty years, workers here might still be enjoying well-paid jobs as full participants in a thriving consumer economy.

What was sold to American voters as an opportunity to empower third-world economies while at the same time lowering the cost of living at home, turned out to be just the starting gate for a global race to the bottom that now sees the majority of worldwide clothing being produced in Dickensian circumstances that Americans, not to0 long ago, would have abhorred.

If those Bangladeshi workers were to succeed in organizing for better conditions, the patrons of their factories, the Walmarts, JC Penneys and Kohl’s, would simply go elsewhere to contract for clothing manufacture. That’s because the only real power to affect change is still in the hands of the American consumer.

Unless we once again learn to want less and demand more from clothing suppliers, third-world sweatshops will continue to be the rule in the garment industry.  

‘Just a little something to bear in mind this holiday season, as discount retailers try to outdo themselves in the “bargain” department.  

About Sue Prent

Artist/Writer/Activist living in St. Albans, Vermont with my husband since 1983. I was born in Chicago; moved to Montreal in 1969; lived there and in Berlin, W. Germany until we finally settled in St. Albans.

5 thoughts on “Look for the union label?

  1. I was excited about the MalWart black friday strike last week, but (1) “associates” had much to lose from participating with retribution lurking and (2) shoppers that mow you down to save ten bucks seem to live in a soundproof world where their connection to human suffering never registers.

    Individual behaviors, modeled and repeated, are like drops of water on rock – as any canyon can attest.

  2. I go out of my way to buy US made. It takes a bit of research, but you can completely dress yourself in high quality gear made here. The semi-aggravating part is that it doesn’t cost as much as the designer brands made by sweat labor.

    I wear US made work boots, sneakers, jeans, shirts, socks, and coats. And don’t forget “Darn Tough” socks and Johnson woolens made here in Vermont.

    I have a small page of US made links on Minor Heresies:


    You can search online for “US made” or “made in USA” or “union made” clothing and get plenty of hits.

    Factoid: If every one of us bought just one piece of US made clothing a year it would create a $9 billion a year market.

    I ask retailers if they have anything US made, and email online retailers to ask the same. I suggested to one online retailer that they create a “US made” tab in their browsing function. I’m seeing that option here and there. Demand pushes supply.

  3. Don’t forget, Disney-branded clothing was found in the ashes of that factory, too.


    For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. ~ Luke 12: 34; Matthew 6:21, Christian New Testament

  4. I used to be a member of a food coop that had 5000 members.  There was a small group that demanded ‘More Democracy’ and tried everything they could think of over several years to get more than 30 people to care about how the coop was being run.  Nothing worked.  They didn’t understand that 4970 members were only there for the cheap food! (This coop had a 12% markup over wholesale).

  5. I once had a huge argument with someone who insisted that even thought she shopped at Walmart for her kids clothes, she only bought American-made items because they were all Disney brand.

    She could not be made to understand that it wasn’t automatically made in the U.S. just because it had an American brand name.  I suggested she take a closer look at the label next time.

    That was about ten years ago so hopefully everyone is a little less clueless about such things now.

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