- Sweated Work, Weak Bodies: Anti-Sweatshop Campaigns and Languages of Labor
Sweatshops, an integral part of the global economy today, evoke images of exploited workers laboring under poor working conditions, not unlike the sweatshops of a hundred years ago in this country. According to Daniel E. Bender, what we learn from the antisweatshop campaigns during the Progressive Era can help us understand and combat these workplaces today, despite many differences. In this powerfully written book, Bender reminds us of both the importance and the limitations of cross-class coalitions and gender differences in creating conditions for improvement. Emerging, as they did, during the growth of the "modern factory," antisweatshop campaigns, he argues, became a tool for promoting the modern capitalist system and for institutionalizing a marginalized female workforce. By focusing on the weaknesses of workers' bodies caused by sweatshop conditions, these campaigns also medicalized workplace health and safety, another aspect of modern capitalism.
The most important contribution of Bender's book, however, is its depiction of how various groups coalesced around sweatshop regulation and/or elimination, each using its own language and methods. For instance, while Jewish immigrants described sweatshop workers as victims, factory inspectors viewed sweatshop conditions as a sign of Jews' racial inferiority and degradation that threatened the rest of society. And, since middle-class consumers often bought what was made in these sweatshops, it was in their best interest to improve [End Page 599] conditions lest they purchase manufactured goods that might carry filth and, more importantly, contagious disease. Key to coalition-building, according to Bender, was an understanding of women, especially those involved in homework, as transient workers. Thus, the language of gender difference, employed by women workers themselves as well as by male factory inspectors and male immigrant workers, was an important element in the cross-class antisweatshop campaigns. Indeed, Bender's analysis of gender is so central to the book that its subtitle might more accurately be "Anti-Sweatshop Campaigns and Languages of Gender" rather than "Languages of Labor."
Nevertheless, argues Bender, coalitions have their limitations. Specifically, strikes in the first and second decades of the twentieth century created factionalism within the unions, most notably the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Factionalism, he argues, particularly the introduction of Communist union leadership, led to the demise of the coalition. Employers used it to flaunt health and safety regulations, and factory inspectors found themselves increasingly unable or unwilling to ally with the union leadership.
Bender also demonstrates that the strikes of the 1910s and 1920s created female activists who increasingly viewed themselves as "real workers" and not just "women workers," worthy of all the rights of their male counterparts. Women workers, however, despite or perhaps because of the cross-class alliances that had been formed among women for improved working conditions, also used the language of sexual difference, referring to themselves as temporary workers. The norm among these communities was the male as breadwinner and the female as future mother. These alliances, particularly between women in the ILGWU and the Women's Trade Union League, and their belief in gender difference, also contributed to the inability of workers to formulate a strong class-based antisweatshop coalition.
This book is written for labor historians. Bender's story certainly adds a chapter to the history of occupational health and safety, but despite his emphasis on how workers' bodies became an important site for the antisweatshop campaigns, most of his evidence and arguments focus on organizing. That said, however, historians of medicine are to be reminded of how health concerns become significant political and economic tools, as they did during the antisweatshop campaigns, particularly when this reminder is placed alongside the book's graphic depictions of working conditions among the immigrant Jewish community. Bender also reminds us to pay attention to the lessons of the past as we create antisweatshop campaigns in the twenty-first century.