The Ghosts of La Costura and
the Rebel Souls of the Living

Revolutionary Worker #1045, March 5, 2000

And now she got a quota
Tha needle and thread crucifixion
Sold and shipped across tha new line of Mason Dixon
Rippin' through denim
Tha point an inch from her vein
Tha foreman approach
His steps now pound in her brain
His presence it terrifies
And eclipses her days
No minutes to rest
No moment to pray...
These are her mountains and skies and she radiates
And through history's rivers of blood she regenerates
And like tha sun disappears only to reappear
Maria she's eternally here
Her time is near
Never conquered but here

From "Maria," Rage Against the Machine, The Battle of Los Angeles


"The ladder continued to rise. One girl on the ninth floor ledge slowly waved her handkerchief as the ladder crept toward her. Then the men stopped cranking. The ladder stopped rising. The crowd yelled in one voice: `Raise the ladders!' But the ladder had been its fullest length. It reached only to the sixth floor. The crowd continued to shout. On the ledge, the girl stopped waving her handkerchief. A flame caught the edge of her skirt. She leaped for the top of the ladder almost 30 feet below her, missed, and hit the sidewalk like a flaming comet."

(From Leon Stein, The Triangle Fire)


In the 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York City, 147 garment workers, mainly young immigrant women, were burned to death. The bodies of many of the workers were found piled behind a door that was locked from the outside. Others jumped out of eighth and ninth story windows, hurtling to their death.

This fire is an infamous event in American history--supposedly marking the difference between "back then" when sweatshops existed and "now" when there are labor laws to protect the workers. But if you walk the halls of the tall, rundown office buildings crammed with garment shops in downtown Los Angeles, you can peer through locked grated doors at the rows of heads bent over the machine and bundles of material that block the aisles. You can feel the tension and pressure in the stopping-starting grinding noise of the machines. The dark eyes that look up for a moment from the machines and the mountain of production convey fatigue, determination and fury. The ghosts of the Triangle fire are here and beating on the doors.

I sit down in the courtyard of an apartment building to wait for Sandra to return from the Laundromat with Leticia's kids. I am going to watch a video of the Triangle Fire with these two friends who have worked in L.A. garment. These women have insight born of experience; wisdom they don't know they have until they share it with others. They know how it feels to stand on that ledge with the flames licking at your skirt. The mother of three small children, Leticia cleans houses but does sewing at home for another garment worker who has a side business selling clothes in swap meets.

Through the window, I can hear the sound of the machine, grinding. A verse from a Ramon Ayala song wafts out the window and hangs in the air: "Quisiera tener alas..." "I wish that I had wings..." A whirlwind of little children run by chasing startled chickens. The bell of the paletero stops them in their tracks, and suddenly I am mobbed by little hands demanding quarters. A tired man smiling under a texano cowboy hat fishes popsicles out of his cart. Sandra's car pulls up and the doors open in a burst of children and bags of laundry. We go inside and start the video.

Sandra starts off the conversation, emphatic: "We're watching something that happened in 1911, and now we're in year 2000--and absolutely nothing has changed! In fact we're even worse off now! Today there is advanced machinery and technology, and supposedly the worker could be in better conditions. After that fire, people fought for laws and regulations, and supposedly workers should have better health conditions, work eight hours and get paid the minimum. If these laws exist where are they?"

A 1996 government survey found "substantial probability of death or serious physical harm" was present in 75 percent of all garment shops. Sweatshops are so much a part of U.S. tradition that the Smithsonian Institution, the largest, most respectable museum in the country, recently had an exhibition titled "A History of American Sweatshops 1820-Present."

Sandra puts it together: "These things will not stop happening while exploitation and the necessity for people to immigrate and work in the most unstable, dangerous conditions still exist. To work like slaves. Think how much money they make exploiting immigrant people!"

Piece-Rate Hell

"The girls have to be at their machines at 7:00 in the morning and they stay at them until 8:00 at night, with just one-half hour for lunch in that time...there is just one row of machines that the daylight ever gets to...and [to the bosses] the girls...are part of the machines they are running. They yell at the girls and they `call them down' even worse than I imagine the Negro slaves were in the South..."

This is a description of a garment sweatshop in the early 1900s (from "Life in the Shop" by Clara Lemlich). But a lot of it could also apply to the sweatshops of today.

Leticia recounts her experience when she worked in downtown garment: "I only made $80 a week working eight or sometimes nine hours a day. I made the little white part that lines a pants pocket, and that paid 2 cents a piece. There were four people doing the same work and there wasn't enough for everyone to work every day. So even though you'd come to work, you wouldn't be sure you had work. You had to wait in line until someone else finished. And then it would be, `No! This bundle was supposed to be mine, not yours! No! It's my turn now!' That was the worst--to have to fight each other to work. But it was the same for everyone, forced by necessity. Out of that $80 I had to pay the babysitter and pay for the bus and buy my lunch.

"Even though we were paid by the piece, the owner still yelled at us all the time. I would ask myself, `Why is he yelling at us? If we're getting paid by the piece then we get paid for what we do. Why does he care if we take a break?' But if you get up to go to the bathroom they yell at you. If you stop for a minute they say, `No the machine should never stop."'

Leticia continues: "There was no time clock to punch. Supposedly, what you sew you keep track of by tickets. Each bundle of pieces has a ticket, and when they give you the pieces, they take one ticket and you keep one. At the end of the week you take your tickets up to the desk and stand in line for your check. Many times they don't even pay you! The owner cries, `They haven't paid me, I can't pay you.' They don't care if you have children to feed. Or when you get up to the table, your ticket count doesn't match his and you have to argue. Even when you prove you're right, it's still, `It'll be in your next check.' And there you are--left without your $80 for a week's work. But there's no other choice than to work there in garment, hoping that the next day things will go better."

By law, piece rate is legal as long as the workers are guaranteed the minimum hourly wage. There has been a 35 percent raise in the minimum wage in an 18-month period, but the piece rate has not gone up. In fact, many say that it has gone down since the passage of the anti-immigrant 187 law. The rise in the minimum wage actually means the piece-rate workers must work faster to make that amount.

In 1998 it was found that 60 percent of L.A. garment shops were in violation of wage and overtime laws. Non-compliant employers owe as much as $73 million in back wages. In 1992, the INS signed an agreement with the Department of Labor. Under this agreement, any worker that wants to file a complaint about unpaid overtime and other violations must have a verified I-9 form. (The I-9 is a form requiring that a new worker show documents to the employer proving their legal right to work. This law was implemented under the 1986 Employer Sanctions law.) In other words, if you complain about your job, you can be deported!

One of the workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory wrote, "I will never forget the sign which on Saturday afternoons was posted on the wall near the elevator stating--`If you don't come in on Sunday, don't come in on Monday."'

Leticia says, "There is a woman that I know who goes into work at 3:00 in the morning. She works until 4:00 in the afternoon but they only pay her for eight hours. Then the boss gives her some cash on the side. He says, `If you want to come tomorrow we start at 3 a.m.' But if she doesn't `want' to go to work there's 10 more people waiting at the door for the job. Poor woman, of course she `wants' to come tomorrow. That's why I say slavery still exists."

Sandra tells the story of Sylvia, a friend who worked in a locked factory located in a garage. "She is the only support for three children. At Christmas she hadn't been paid for three weeks. If she left that job, she had no chance of ever being paid. She was afraid the owner was going to shut down the shop and disappear without ever paying them. She took in sewing from another factory to try to make up for the wages she was waiting to be paid. After work or on the weekends, Sylvia was always at her machine, behind a growing mountain of pants. She was sewing, always sewing, no matter when you came to see her. She was worried because with all the sitting in the same position she had pain in her back and abdomen. What would happen if her health went bad? Of course she had no health insurance, no money saved. Her oldest daughter was going to beauty school. She wanted the others to go to college." Then one day, she was gone--and Sandra doesn't know what ever became of her.

A Web of Exploitation and Inequality

The huge retail stores such as Wal-Mart and K-Mart who virtually control world apparel production claim to be unaware of the conditions under which their garments are made. Their obscene profits are made by sucking the life out of workers on both sides of the Mexico-U.S. border and around the globe. The workers in L.A. garment are in their majority undocumented women from Mexico. Most earn around $7,200 per year to support a family of three, but in reality these wages also sustain the family left behind in Mexico as well.

As Leticia says: "You have to send money home, because people there have nothing. It doesn't matter if you yourself can barely pay the rent or eat, you have to send money home."

Sandra explains: "Where we come from, it used to be just the man who would come to the U.S. and send money back to the family. Now the economy forces both men and women to leave everything, even your children, in the hopes of finding a better life." She turns to Leticia, "When we first came here, both her and I had to leave our children behind."

Leticia says, "You can't sleep at night waiting for the phone to ring telling you your child is sick, or they drowned or they were stung by a scorpion. When you're eating, you wonder if they're eating. Even if you have a job and you're doing well you feel sad."

Sandra says, "Now they are passing laws that create a phobia or a hatred against the immigrant worker. In this way a standard is set: that all the people from Latin American countries come to take away the jobs and benefits from the people here. We're `a weight on society,' `lowlifes,' `we bring too many dirty children.' This leads to worse conditions at work because then the owners feel more right to discriminate against us. It is very important for the system to construct and preserve this web we're caught in, all the inequalities and the ways people are set against each other. That's why when I hear that they want to stop immigration I think, `Tell me another one...' It's not in their interests.

"Supposedly they passed laws to protect workers. But now they've passed a whole series of laws to hurt the immigrants that do all the work, to limit our access to hospitals, to impose English on us. You can't get a driver's license, you can't get an ID, you can't get any government aid. You could have been caught for drunk driving 20 years ago and now they come to deport you for it. The truth is all of these laws have been passed to make our work closer to slavery. To enslave us more. They want inequality--it is a weapon that protects their production."

Leticia joins in: "Life here is very sad. It's the discrimination that really brings you down."

Sandra goes on: "In all of this we're looking at, all of this garbage, all the dirty exploitation of the workers, I can see a light of hope. Look at South Central Los Angeles, that's an area that used to be predominately African-American, people that came up out of slavery and had to learn to fight to survive in a racist system. Now they're joined by people from Latin America, Central America, Mexico--workers fleeing from poverty and political persecution, fleeing from death. And now they live together, and I can see that with all these races and cultures together the people have begun to realize their common situation. To learn that if we don't fight together we'll continue to be poor and oppressed together."

Breaking the Chains

There are other ghosts that haunt the "costura" and breathe hope into the souls of the living. These are the ghosts of the women who rose up heroically in the "Uprising of the 20,000," the movement of immigrant garment worker women in 1910 in New York City who inspired the declaration of International Women's Day as a Communist holiday. This uprising inspires these two women greatly, and I asked them to speak to the chains that weigh upon women and the fight to bring forward a force for change.

Leticia explains: "The men come home from work and sit down. No, they're tired. And the woman? Fix the food for the kids, food for the husband. In walks the brother and she jumps up to fix food for him. Whoever walks in the door, she has to jump up and fix food. These are the customs we bring with us, we are conditioned this way, to serve the husband and the kids.

"Our situation is hard from the time we're born. When a baby is born a girl, they wanted a boy. Especially the first one. You might be the oldest, but your brother still has the right to beat you, to insult you, because he's a man. It's like the woman carries all the weight. People blame women for everything, any problems with the children. Women have to open their eyes. things must change. That's why we're always out talking to the women. We must go out and protest and march."

Sandra says, "The woman is the slave of the slave. She suffers under the greatest weight of oppression, with the chains of being a mother, a wife and now a worker, working double what men work. But she still carries the responsibility of the children. And once your children reach adolescence you start thinking and comparing: `Maybe it would have been better if I hadn't brought them here.' For economic reasons you had to make that decision to raise them here. But still you think, `I'm probably to blame that here they suffer from gangs, drug addiction, they get sent to jail.' Because that's the only future that our children have living here in immigrant conditions.

"You know it is a very heavy chain we're living with today. The woman is always pushed to think of advancing her family, and she knows what it is to fight for others. She lives under the oppression of generations and she knows that her daughter will follow her same path, it's all laid out. When the woman fights she often fights with a bigger vision, a bigger push, a strong motivation that united in struggle our situation can change. This is what we saw in the Uprising of the 20,000. Their movement sparked another one for broader change. They weren't fighting for themselves, they were fighting for all the poor people."

These women embrace the slogan, "Break the Chains! Unleash the Fury of Women as a Mighty Force for Revolution!" When I ask them what it means to them, they laugh. I laugh. Sandra says, "We laugh from joy when we hear those words. When women grab onto an idea that tells them that they have a right to the fury they feel, it gives us the ability to think, `I can do it.' It gives us the energy to raise up our heads and fight for something better."

I leave thinking how these women are part of the face of the proletariat in the U.S. today. How fortunate and wonderful for our class that they are here with so many lessons to teach us, binding the struggle in this imperialist citadel more tightly together with our brothers and sisters south of the border! So that the revolution of our class can tumble an empire and convulse the whole world. This is a class of people who will one day run the world and can truly liberate humanity!

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)