Threads: Inside the L.A. Garment District
Revolutionary Worker #1075, October 22, 2000, rwor.org
Threads, as in clothes. The clothing we wear. A necessity, usually a practical matter, at least. But threads can also be fun, stylish. They can make a statement.
Threads, as in fabric. The fabric of people's lives, "the ties that bind" -- to the land, to home, to family you may never see again, thousands of miles away...and to a lifetime of work.
Thread, as in to thread your way north through death-filled rivers and life-stealing deserts. A painful line that can stretch from Mexico or Guatemala or El Salvador into the heartland of an imperial power.
Threads that weave the fabric of exploitation in the garment industry of Los Angeles.
During the recent period of protests at the Democratic National Convention, the staff of Libros Revolución bookstore led tours of L.A.'s downtown garment industry, La Costura, for people who'd come here from all over the U.S. These tours were well attended by an interesting mix of Mecha students, anarchists, Ralph Nader supporters, political and social activists, college students and rebellious youth. This tour showed people the real L.A. and the real proletariat that toils here. People who had never seen where their clothes come from, got to see the source of these things--and the political, economic and social relations behind them that capitalism hides.
The Revolutionary Worker was fortunate to be able to go along on one of these tours led by Olga, Ricardo and Diego,* young volunteer staffers from the bookstore who helped all of us see the clothes on our backs in a whole new light.
We met early one Saturday morning at Libros: an RW reporter and a group of young law students. They'd come at the urging of a friend who'd taken the tour during the DNC. None of us knew exactly what to expect on this tour-- except that we were going to be walking for 21/2 hours.
When the tour guides arrived we all crowded around them. Ricardo gave us a brief orientation: "This tour is broken down into parts. At the end of this tour, when you put all the parts together, you'll be able to see a whole circle of oppression.
"First, there's the Financial District. Then we'll go to the California Mart, the capital of the U.S. fashion design industry. Then we'll go to the actual sweatshop district. There will be a lot of exposure on this tour. Our goal is to give a revolutionary analysis and expose imperialism, but also to put a human face to the super-exploitation of the people."
And off we went on the first leg of our journey. Leaving Libros behind, our guides led us through the jewelry district, the buffer zone between the gleaming towers of finance capital and the gritty canyons of La Costura.
Diego explained how all the riches offered for sale here have been stolen from countries in the Third World and how the imperialists have literally ground up the masses and the earth to get at these precious stones. I barely looked at the windows filled with gold and diamonds and Rolex watches. They faded as my mind saw windows filled with starving Brazilian miners and buried-alive South African miners.
A young Black man was halfway up the block ahead of us. Pants that used to be white covered his misshapen legs, but couldn't disguise the fact that he was sitting in the middle of the sidewalk because his crippled legs couldn't support him. Surrounded by jewels, he raised his arms above his head, and brought his hands together at the wrists to form a cup: "Can you spare any change? Do you have any food?"
The Financial District is at the top of a hill. On a Saturday morning it's pretty deserted.
Except for some actors doing a photo shoot, we were just about the only people around. We were in a forest of skyscrapers, each one scarred with the logo of some mega-capitalist enterprise: Arco, Citicorp, Bank of America, AT&T. Ricardo told us to look up at these buildings--headquarters of the class which makes the "decisions about how many people are going to starve in Mexico, how many people are going to be forced off their land and forced to migrate to the United States, how many people are going to be put in the Twin Towers jail that's not too far from here."
Then he told us to turn around. We could see all of downtown L.A. below us. Diego pointed out the bookstore and the jewelry district we had just come through. He pointed to a spot off in the distance: "That's the garment district, our next stop. We're going to go down from here, literally, to where the proletariat is--the masses of people who are exploited--at the bottom of all this." As we began the descent, there were more people on the streets, and our anticipation heightened.
Ricardo told us about our next stop. "We're going to the California Mart which is the fashion mecca of the United States. You'll see lots of really expensive clothes there. Buyers come here from all over the United States to get the latest fashions for their stores. The Mart isn't open to the public; it's for retailers and high-end distributors only. You need to be ready to spend tens of thousands of dollars to even get in the door. But the people who actually make these clothes don't have enough money to buy them. The people who make these clothes are literally only a few blocks away, but it's really a whole different world."
The Mart itself reminded me of an early 1960s suburban-type office building: boring. In the lobby we could see samples of jeweled evening bags and fancy sweaters in glass display cases. This felt about a million miles away from anything you'd expect to see in a sweatshop district. Until we turned the corner...
Our guides announced, "This is the sweatshop district, where the workers make everything but don't own anything." This was the old downtown L.A. It was amazing! There were so many people! Garment workers, shoppers, and vendors filled the streets. It was so crowded, our group had to snake its way single-file down the sidewalks. You had to watch your step or you could easily trip over another pedestrian or some of the wares for sale displayed on every spare inch of sidewalk.
Diego stopped at the corner, and one-by-one we bunched up behind him. He told us to look up. At first, all I saw were hundreds of old marble and concrete buildings for blocks and blocks in every direction. "Look again," he told us. "Look up." Now I began to see it--sweatshops. That 20-story building across the street--it was all sweatshops. As far as the eye could see, in every direction, hundreds and thousands of sweatshops.
"There are over 100,000 sweatshop workers in downtown L.A.," Diego continued, "not including the people who do work from home. Another 140,000 workers are unofficial, which refers to the people who work from home, including child labor."
Child labor? He explained: "The way this works is that people get paid on a piece rate system. So they spend whatever amount of time in the actual sweatshop. Then, because these people are poor--these are the working poor--they need more money to maintain a roof over their head and keep their kids fed. And people usually have more than one child, so that's a lot more responsibility. So if they don't complete all their work at the sweatshop, they take it home.
"When they take it home, they have to pay the shopowner to have the pieces shipped to them. This is deducted from their paycheck. So they bring the work home and the kids help out. Whether it's the trimming, the sewing, placing pieces in bundles: whatever it is, it's unpaid child labor. The women are really forced to use their children to do this; otherwise they wouldn't get the work done. Then you still have to consider how much time these women need for chores, making dinner, for sleep. How much time do they have left over to spend with their kids, doing homework with them or talking to them?"
People on the tour wanted to know how the shop owners can get away with such abuses and why the workers go along with it. Ricardo told us a story about a woman garment worker he'd met while he was conducting a previous tour. "She'd recently been fired. The reason why she was fired was because she had gotten legal documents. If you get legal documents, the boss has to pay you a legal wage. So she was fired. They gave her another excuse for her being fired, but she knew what was up. She told us that the majority of people working in garment are undocumented, that's how they take advantage of you. They know that you can't stand up for yourself, you have to take whatever they do to you--these horrible conditions, the long hours, the extra work, all that stuff.
"When you're undocumented, that's the reality. You can't complain. For example, there's forms you can fill out to make a complaint. But you need a social security number to fill out the form. Like the woman told us, 'You can complain, but at your own risk.' "
At this point in the tour, it was time for a little break. Our guides picked out a street corner packed with street vendors, and motioned us to sit down on a brick shelf that jutted out from the side of one of the old buildings. Remembering what I'd learned, I looked up--yep, as high as I could see, bolts of fabric peeking out of open windows and the fuzzy outlines of workers bent over sewing machines behind the opaque glass.
Wearing a bright-colored dress and a hand-embroidered apron trimmed with lace ruffles, a middle-aged Salvadoran woman was selling fresh produce, sliced and stuffed into plastic baggies, displayed beautifully on top of a cardboard box. Right next to her, another Salvadoran woman was grilling hot dogs wrapped in bacon strips and selling them from her homemade pushcart. On the sidewalk by their feet, an old Mexican man had dozens of cassette tapes spread out for sale on a sheet. A young Mexicana and her son were selling homemade churros across the way.
While we rested in the shade of the buildings, we were sharing mango-on-a-stick and cucumber slices squirted with lemon juice and chili powder. Suddenly, all the vendors started running, the old man clutching his sheet full of cassette tapes. As he ran, you could hear the clatter of hard plastic on the sidewalk as a few straggling tapes fell out of the makeshift parcel. Within seconds, the once jam-packed corner was empty except for an overturned cardboard box and the pushcart with the still-sizzling hotdogs. We looked up to see the LAPD--pigs on bikes--come wheeling around the corner.
Diego explained that when people in downtown L.A. get stopped by the police for vending, they get a $500 ticket, all their wares are confiscated, and often the undocumented who are arrested are handed over to the INS and deported. Then he told us about a similar incident that he'd witnessed on a previous tour, one that had quite a different outcome.
"This was a tour we did right after the DNC. The tour was just about over, and as we started walking back to the store [Libros], right across the street there was a paletero, a man who sells ice cream out of a little push cart. And he was stopped by the police. So there's this gang of blue surrounding this one guy. He was about 5'2", about 100 pounds. He was kind of a little guy compared to them. He was about 20 years old.
"All of a sudden, we heard a commotion and people had surrounded the cops and were yelling, 'Let him go!' 'It's not a crime to work!' 'Police brutality!' They were yelling the slogans from the DNC protests! These were the basic masses doing this, mainly garment workers. When they heard it during the DNC, they knew what the protesters were saying was true because they live it. Police brutality, being hounded by the INS: they feel this in their daily lives. So when they see it, they know how to denounce it!
"And the pigs panicked. They froze. They didn't know what to do. 'Whoa! People are talking back? What is this?!' Then even people from the local businesses, some shopowners, started in arguing with the cops. It was just amazing how this guy was being backed up by the masses. People were pointing fingers at the police, yelling at them, giving them the finger. There were a lot of women who got really vocal, and they went face-to-face with the pigs. For people on the tour, all of this information that we had just been talking about for the last two or three hours came close to home. And we're like, 'Damn! This is more than real!' "
Too often, though, the reality is what we'd just seen--the masses being hounded by the authorities for the "crime" of being a poor immigrant. Our guides told us another story that brought this home. They told us about an infamous incident that had occurred right around the same time that the government started Operation Gatekeeper, early in the '90s. The INS and the Department of Labor came to La Costura. Under the guise of busting sweatshop owners for labor code violations, they raided entire buildings. They closed them off so no one could get out, then the INS came in and they deported everyone who was inside those buildings. People were jumping out the windows in desperation. Families were torn apart. The children would come home from school, and there would be no parents because they had been deported or died.
Our guides continued. "One thing we want to touch on in this tour is the real cost of exploitation--the social cost, the human cost....
"People literally risk their lives when they come here. First they're forced to go through waters infected with feces and chemical pollutants. This is because of Operation Gatekeeper, where the U.S. government has built fortress-style, very paramilitary barriers at the border. Some of the barriers extend 2,000 miles out into the desert and 200 feet out into the ocean. So people either go out into the ocean and drown or they go out into the desert and die from extreme temperatures, either hot or cold.
"It costs a person somewhere between $1000 and $3000 to cross the border from Guatemala into Mexico, then an additional couple of thousand to cross the border from Mexico to the U.S.
"Then, if they get through all those death traps, when they get here they get into some more death traps in these sweatshops. There's a lot of violations in these buildings. First of all, they're not earthquake-proof. They're not fireproof. They're not well ventilated. There's bars on the windows...or lack of bars to break your fall if you're on the 17th floor. Lots of times they keep the doors to the sweatshop locked, which is a fire hazard. The bathrooms are kept locked.
"Aside from that, there's a lot of petrochemicals that go into the textiles that are used to produce the garments. So as people are working with the textiles, they're breathing in the molecules of petrochemicals that are in the air. It's really hazardous to their lungs and overall health.
"Then this contaminated fabric rubs up on their clothes so all these chemicals rub off on them, then that seeps in through their skin, causing bone deterioration... The back-and-forth motion [of the sewing] messes up their lower back, and their wrists get carpal tunnel syndrome. They have arthritis.
"We've heard numbers and numbers of stories where people actually get hurt working, but they have to take it. They have to keep on working. If you cut your finger, you have to put a bandage over it and keep on working and just take it. If you tell the boss that you have to go home or see a doctor, they tell you, 'Go home.' Then they just won't call you back to work. And you don't get paid for the work you've already done, either. That's common practice. It's a total disregard for the human condition."
We ended our tour at the intersection of 9th and Los Angeles Streets in the heart of the downtown garment district. We were stunned as our guides pointed in a circle: On one corner was a building that housed the offices of the garment industry manufacturers and the banks that finance them. On another corner was the California Mart with all its high fashion clothes and million-dollar deals. On the third corner were the retail stores. And on the last corner, a huge building full of sweatshops.
Diego put it this way: "You see where the clothes come from, how they get made, who actually produces the garment, then who privately accumulates it and the profits that they make. Although the shirts are socially made, they're not socially kept. Even more acutely it points to the real inequalities that are a basic part of this system.
"What we're trying to get people to see with this tour is that imperialism is not just a set of bad policies or a bunch of greedy people. It's an actual economic structure that operates under the rule of 'expand or die.' It doesn't care about people's lives, it doesn't care about how many people it displaces, it doesn't care about how many people it kills. Not just here and in Mexico, but all around the world. That's the nature of the beast."
As we headed back to the bookstore, one of the people on the tour said, "I'll never see downtown L.A. the same way again."
Threads. So many threads that they can't be counted, the innumerable threads that bind the working people to each other, that join us no matter where we may end up in the world. Threads that bridge the gaps between us, the gaps of different languages and different cultures, gaps of nation and of race. The threads that overcome every divide, the stout and sturdy threads of proletarian internationalism.
*the names of the tour guides have been changed
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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