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  • Sweated Work, Weak Bodies: Anti-Sweatshop Campaigns and Languages of Labor
  • Robert Ross
Sweated Work, Weak Bodies: Anti-Sweatshop Campaigns and Languages of Labor. By Daniel E. Bender ( New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2004. 288pp.).

There were an estimated 250,000 garment workers in the U.S. in 2000 whose employers failed to pay the minimum wage or did not pay them an overtime premium, and whose shops were physically dangerous or unhealthy.1 Using the formal definitions of the U.S. Government these sites of "multiple labor law violations" were sweatshops.2 There were very few garment sweatshops in the 1950s and 1960s.3

The period from about 1942 (when Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins abolished homework using enforcement authority granted in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938) to the late 1970s was one of relative decency for North American garment workers. In the late 1940s their earnings were very close to that of the average manufacturing worker. By the late 1990s though, their wages had fallen to little over one-half; sewing machine operators earned about the poverty level income for a family of three.4 The story of sweatshops in the American garment industry is a story of rise and decline and rise.

The temporary defeat of sweatshops had three pillars of support. The first and most important was the long struggle for trade union unity, employer recognition, and the strength to impose controls on an otherwise cutthroat competitive branch of industry. The ability of workers to accomplish this was substantially increased by their alliance with middle class reformers, symbolized by Ms. Perkins, whose earliest professional work was as an aid in Florence Kelly's Consumer League anti-sweatshop campaign. Perkins herself came to reject "voluntary" codes of conduct such as the sweatshop free labeling campaign of the League, and so stands for the third pillar of working class decency as well: favorable public policy—favorable to union growth and to industrial regulation. Of course the New Deal's Wagner Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act are the most important concrete and symbolic moments for this aspect of the story.

In the struggle for change in a democratic society, contestants often find themselves making arguments that work in that they are effective in gaining allies. The discourse that evolves from a process of trial and error is akin to (but not the same as) a face -to-face negotiation, in that the result may be satisfactory but it may not reflect the "whole" thinking of one of the parties. [End Page 1105]

In the first decades of the twentieth century infant garment workers' unions had no legal structure of rights, and courts repeatedly rejected laws that regulated workplace hours, wages, and even location. Courts did acknowledge the right of states to regulate hours and conditions in the name of public health. Is it then a surprise that working class leaders and unions took up a language of public health as one way to regulate workplaces in their industry?

Similarly, reformers (including artists) and those who appeal to them are often more readily stirred by appeals to compassion or sympathy than to distributive justice. Sympathy for the sweatshop workers wracked by TB may be easier to mobilize than support for a wage demand or for the right to strike. In contemporary terms this is sometimes called the "victim Olympics". We should not be surprised that this is not an entirely new matter.

Daniel Bender wants to contend with such common sense reasoning. One part of Bender's monograph successfully mines the rich store of records of the Joint Board of Sanitary Control (JBSC). The JBSC was created as part of the settlement of the strike waves of 1909-1913 that began the process of taming the worst of sweatshop conditions in the New York garment industry. It represents, for Bender, the cross-class alliance between workers and their union on one hand, and the professionals and reformers (in the case of the JBSC, public health professionals) on the other. He notes, with some repetition but with superb illustration of art, literature and photographs, that workers and professionals associated the sweatshop and the hyperexploitation of...


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