In 2002 Ben Cohen (of Ben & Jerry’s fame) got together with the core players in the anti-sweatshop movement and started SweatX. SweatX was planned to be structured as a worker owned cooperative sewing facility in Los Angeles, CA. Early in the first year of operations, with full support from company management, the workers of SweatX voted to be represented by the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE). A positive labor-management relationship was forged and production commenced. But after 14 months of operation — and before worker ownership had been established — SweatX closed in 2004.
SweatX was a business answer to a social problem. The problem was and still is the lack of corporate accountability in the global sweatshop industry that drives the manufacture of almost all of the clothing we wear. Clothing brands are companies with a mission to make money for their shareholders. These companies typically do not care about the individual worker and seek out manufacturing centers that oppress workers and poison the environment.
“Between 1865 and 1890, in the aftermath of the Civil War, virtually every important American labor reform organization advocated ‘cooperation’ over ‘competitive’ capitalism and several thousand cooperatives opened for business during this era. The men and women who built cooperatives were practical reformers and they established businesses to stabilize their work lives, families, and communities. Yet they were also utopians—envisioning a world free from conflict where workers would receive the full value of their labor and freely exercise democratic citizenship in the political and economic realms.” The Practical Utopians – Steve Leikin
The majority of workers that gave up the cooperation model and flocked to wage labor factories suffered deeply for that decision. It was not easy for the early cooperative movement to prosper when competing with conventional, capitalist employers as they were better capitalized with European fortunes. For the most part, these conventional firms became sweatshops and launched the garment industry on a difficult path for workers.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, in New York City (1911), galvanized the citizens of the United States of America and helped produce a social contract with the people who sewed clothing for a living. The years following the fire and the New Deal brought reforms that guaranteed worker safety and the ability of a professional sewer to make a living in a safe and just work environment. Many of these reforms were pioneered by Worcester native, Francis Perkins, the first woman appointed to the US Cabinet.
This system of clothing manufacturing thrived for 50 years in the United States. In exchange for great clothing, laborers from all backgrounds had the opportunity to provide for their families, enjoyed their careers, and thrived financially. Americans fought and earned these opportunities, in large part through the creation of strong labor unions that gave them a collective voice. We have lost many of these opportunities due to the proliferation of international free trade agreements and union busting.
American workers suffered a mass exodus of jobs and the cycle of clothing factory worker oppression began anew throughout the 1980’s and 90’s. The broken social contract of this industry and others lead to the street revolts at the 1999 WTO meeting in Seattle and the 2000 Democratic National Convention.
The SweatX effort entered the scene at this juncture and attempted to reset history in favor of the worker. They failed. WorX Printing Cooperative is our next attempt to right this wrong.