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  • Sweatshop USA: The American Sweatshop in Historical and Global Perspective
  • Erik Peterson
Sweatshop USA: The American Sweatshop in Historical and Global Perspective. Edited by Daniel E. Bender and Richard A. Greenwald. New York: Routledge, 2003. 300 pp. $31.95 paper.

High profile exposés in the 1990s thrust sweatshops once again into the public consciousness. In various ways El Monte, Kathie Lee Gifford, Nike, Gap, Guess, and Disney exposed many Americans to a contemporary "sweating" system driven by neo-liberal trade policies and mega-retailers like Walmart.

The collection of essays found in Sweatshop USA sets out to explore the tensions that characterize efforts to "define, regulate, and ultimately eliminate sweatshops" both historically and in the present. On this score its accomplishment is spotty.

The first section of Sweatshop USA examines early social reform movements that first defined the sweatshop and the cultural discourse and environment that informed them. Section two explores the sweatshop. The final section focuses on historical and current challenges to the sweatshop system.

The collection works best when it focuses on concrete worker, consumer, or student campaigns, and their successes, defeats, limitations, and evolution. Xiaolan Bao uses worker interviews to highlight the complicated power relations within Sunset Park's Chinese sweatshops. Her essay sheds light on how the intricate family, community, and national networks make it possible for immigrant workers simultaneously to decry horrible abuses by their employer, be openly hostile to fellow workers, and show remarkable loyalty to their employers.

Immanuel Ness soberly assesses the difficulties of building worker power in the face of capital mobility and just-in-time production demands; retailers simply switch contractors and shops shut down when workers organize. Unfortunately Ness offers no solutions other than faith that "resistance never stops" and the need to build a broader working class protest movement against our current economic organization.

Eileen Boris and Liza Featherstone examine contemporary anti-sweatshop movements. Boris traces the ethical consumption movement from the turn-of-the-century's "white label movement," to the 1930s' Fair Labor Standards and "Blue Eagle" fights, up to current efforts. She argues that [End Page 110] monitoring and awareness campaigns need to open up opportunities for workers to act as "agents of their own liberation" rather than be addressed as "objects of reform." Featherstone turns to the student campaign, United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS). Like Boris, Featherstone goes beyond "horror stories" to trace the evolving student anti-sweatshop movement over the past ten years—from consumer awareness to a sophisticated international worker solidarity that reveals an understanding of how sweatshops fit into a larger economic system built on exploited labor.

Sweatshop USA does not work as well when it attempts to theorize why unions and social reform movements have failed to eliminate sweatshop production. Richard Greenwald characterizes the movement's shift from worker organization and militancy in the early twentieth century to government regulation and legislation in the 1930s as a strategic error. While Greenwald chastises garment worker unions for relying too much on legislative protections, many of the threats they faced were fueled by political decisions. Increased worker power and militancy were needed, but as Ness's essay suggests, fighting capital flight through workplace organization alone is ultimately futile until the rules governing capital organization change.

Ethel Brooks also finds fault in the tactics of the anti-sweatshop movement. For Brooks, sweatshops are "only realized in their staging"—as theater —which sells American consumers an "ideal sweatshop" populated by victimized women of color. Such shock theater garners public attention which quickly dissipates as consumer tastes drift elsewhere. Broooks asserts that without supporting indigenous worker organizing, activists end up reproducing in their political theater the same exploitative modes of consumption they are presumably fighting.

Surely anti-sweatshop activists are fully implicated in the contradictions of the culture they challenge. But Brooks' sweeping claim that consumer awareness and monitoring campaigns simply reproduce sweatshop exploitation ignores the personal, social, and economic transformations described by Featherstone and the difficulties all movements face in sustaining struggles for social and economic change.

In short, Sweatshop USA provides a basic introduction to anti-sweatshop movements suitable for college-level classes, but despite several insightful individual essays, on the...


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pp. 110-111
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2007
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