An oldie, but a goodie:
Sexist antics and union-busting cast doubt on American Apparel’s progressive cred
Full disclosure: As I write this piece, I’m wearing a gray American Apparel T-shirt. In fact, I own more than one T-shirt from this company. The clothing is comfy and stylish, and you can get it for a price you can live with and without the burden of supporting sweatshop labor.
Once an obscure clothing manufacturer in Los Angeles, American Apparel stores have recently exploded, with 53 stores opening in five countries since 2003. Meanwhile, their sexy ads dominate the pages of trendy, urban magazines geared to the slightly liberal twenty-something set. Newspapers and TV shows have highlighted the rise of the company, celebrating the success of this self-proclaimed socially conscious, anti-sweatshop clothing line.
Lately, however, both my own experience and recent coverage have made it seem that, like any other clothing company, American Apparel is oppressive towards women and hostile towards workers and unions.
First, there are the ads. Ultra-sexy–some featuring porn actresses–their full-page magazine displays are most conspicuously not showcasing the socks. Jason Rowe, a columnist for New York University’s Washington Square News, puts it best: “Photographs of young women in compromising positions, some as young as 15, are juxtaposed alongside text giving accounts of meeting the models on the street and inviting them to be photographed, conveying the feeling of some sort of perverted conquest.”
But while the ads can be dismissed as a mere image problem, other, more institutional problems at the company have recently surfaced.
Founder and senior partner Dov Charney has been at the center of controversy over his fondness for sex in the workplace. In two separate sexual harassment lawsuits, writes Business Week, “two of the women accuse Charney of exposing himself to them. One claims he invited her to masturbate with him and that he ran business meetings at his Los Angeles home wearing close to nothing. Another says he asked her to hire young women with whom he could have sex, Asians preferred.”
The views he publicly expresses about women are equally dicey. In a Jane magazine article, Charney suggested that women who complain about come-ons at work are suffering from a “victim culture.”
But while Charney’s misogynist views have only recently become a public concern, my doubts about the company’s progressive commitments go back further.
Last year, I was living in Chicago and looking for a third job to supplement my freelance writing and catering gigs. When I heard that American Apparel was opening a store in the trendy Wicker Park neighborhood, I rushed to the spacious, luxurious loft apartment in Bucktown where the interviews were being held.
After filling out my application, I was called into the living room to meet my interviewer. But before we sat down, there was something all new applicants had to do. I stood up against the wall, said “Cheese,” and had my Polaroid taken.
“I’ll never get this job now,” I thought. There was an aesthetic they wanted in their employees that I was guessing I didn’t have. But I did have something that I thought would set me apart from the other applicants.
“Why do you want to work here?” my interviewer asked.
“Well, I’ve been a fan of your company’s mission for many years. I used to be active in the United Students Against Sweatshops.”
Apparently, my four years of anti-sweatshop campaigning at the University of Michigan and my affiliation with USAS, which has a track record of forcing many companies to adopt more humane labor standards, was a big black spot on my resume for this “sweatshop free” company.
The interviewer stopped taking notes when I mentioned USAS. She nervously looked straight at me, the first time she had done so in our entire conversation.
“Oh,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of problems with them.”
It seemed like an odd comment. Everyone I knew from USAS in Michigan either had no opinion of the company or liked it. The worst criticism I had heard was that such a venture doesn’t challenge industry standards, but only creates a niche for sweatshop-free clothes. A valid point, I thought, but even a niche is a place to start.
I asked what she meant.
She huffed that USAS kids in L.A. had worked with UNITE HERE, the garment workers’ union, and aggressively campaigned for a union at the company’s downtown L.A. manufacturing facility. She said that union activists visited the houses of many of the company’s workers to ask them about their workplace and if they wanted a union.
Her impatient tone subsided. She then smiled and told me in a cheery voice that the factory’s workers rallied against the union because working conditions were so favorable.
I told her that I knew nothing about this, and we rushed through the rest of the interview. I never got a call back. While it is possible that my un-hip appearance reduced my chances, I still wondered: Could my association with union activists have blacklisted me from this “progressive” company?
The UNITE HERE campaign was launched in September 2003. Even though American Apparel workers made higher wages, they lacked certain benefits guaranteed to union garment workers. Stephen Wishart, a senior research analyst with UNITE HERE, writes on its Web site, BehindtheLabel.org, “Issues such as no paid time off, lack of affordable healthcare, production methods, and treatment by supervisors were the main issues of workers trying to organize.”
When American Apparel heard the news, management got tough. Wishart reports, “The company’s activities included holding captive meetings with employees, interrogating employees about their union activities and sympathies, soliciting employees to ask the union to return their union authorization cards, distributing anti-union arm bands and T-shirts, and requiring all employees to attend an anti-union rally. The company’s most devastating tactic, though, was threatening to shut down the plant if the workers organized.”
These are rather excessive means, especially for a company that made its name by touting improved labor standards. Eventually, a complaint was filed to the National Labor Relations Board. The company backed off from the tactics, but the plant remains non-unionized as a result of Charney’s union-busting blitzkrieg.
Sure, we should be grateful that the success of anti-sweatshop clothing company shows that companies can make a profit and not exploit overseas workers. But seeing the company’s true intentions, it seems that its claims may just be part of an image designed to lure the younger generation to its product.
I don’t wholly buy the argument against American Apparel that says the company is only creating a niche for sweatshop-free goods. It is like Whole Foods, some argue, a store that doesn’t challenge the grocery store industry standards, but only makes organic food available to a small, bourgeois group that can afford it. American Apparel, according to this logic, doesn’t motivate Nike, for instance, to change its ways. A part of me believes that even creating a niche like that can bring change if a firm’s mission is really progressive.
But knowing that the company has bullied its workers, and that sexism pervades from the ad department up through the office of the CEO, it becomes clear that American Apparel is different only in degree, not kind, from its competitors.
______________Editor’s note: Two corrections apply to the following article:
A nation that destroys its systems of education, degrades its public information, guts its public libraries and turns its airwaves into vehicles for cheap, mindless amusement becomes deaf, dumb and blind. It prizes test scores above critical thinking and literacy. It celebrates rote vocational training and the singular, amoral skill of making money. It churns out stunted human products, lacking the capacity and vocabulary to challenge the assumptions and structures of the corporate state. It funnels them into a caste system of drones and systems managers. It transforms a democratic state into a feudal system of corporate masters and serfs.
Teachers, their unions under attack, are becoming as replaceable as minimum-wage employees at Burger King. We spurn real teachers—those with the capacity to inspire children to think, those who help the young discover their gifts and potential—and replace them with instructors who teach to narrow, standardized tests. These instructors obey. They teach children to obey. And that is the point. The No Child Left Behind program, modeled on the “Texas Miracle,” is a fraud. It worked no better than our deregulated financial system. But when you shut out debate these dead ideas are self-perpetuating.
Passing bubble tests celebrates and rewards a peculiar form of analytical intelligence. This kind of intelligence is prized by money managers and corporations. They don’t want employees to ask uncomfortable questions or examine existing structures and assumptions. They want them to serve the system. These tests produce men and women who are just literate and numerate enough to perform basic functions and service jobs. The tests elevate those with the financial means to prepare for them. They reward those who obey the rules, memorize the formulas and pay deference to authority. Rebels, artists, independent thinkers, eccentrics and iconoclasts—those who march to the beat of their own drum—are weeded out.
“Imagine,” said a public school teacher in New York City, who asked that I not use his name, “going to work each day knowing a great deal of what you are doing is fraudulent, knowing in no way are you preparing your students for life in an ever more brutal world, knowing that if you don’t continue along your scripted test prep course and indeed get better at it you will be out of a job. Up until very recently, the principal of a school was something like the conductor of an orchestra: a person who had deep experience and knowledge of the part and place of every member and every instrument. In the past 10 years we’ve had the emergence of both [Mayor] Mike Bloomberg’s Leadership Academy and Eli Broad’s Superintendents Academy, both created exclusively to produce instant principals and superintendents who model themselves after CEOs. How is this kind of thing even legal? How are such ‘academies’ accredited? What quality of leader needs a ‘leadership academy’? What kind of society would allow such people to run their children’s schools? The high-stakes tests may be worthless as pedagogy but they are a brilliant mechanism for undermining the school systems, instilling fear and creating a rationale for corporate takeover. There is something grotesque about the fact the education reform is being led not by educators but by financers and speculators and billionaires.”
Teachers, under assault from every direction, are fleeing the profession. Even before the “reform” blitzkrieg we were losing half of all teachers within five years after they started work—and these were people who spent years in school and many thousands of dollars to become teachers. How does the country expect to retain dignified, trained professionals under the hostility of current conditions? I suspect that the hedge fund managers behind our charter schools system—whose primary concern is certainly not with education—are delighted to replace real teachers with nonunionized, poorly trained instructors. To truly teach is to instill the values and knowledge which promote the common good and protect a society from the folly of historical amnesia. The utilitarian, corporate ideology embraced by the system of standardized tests and leadership academies has no time for the nuances and moral ambiguities inherent in a liberal arts education. Corporatism is about the cult of the self. It is about personal enrichment and profit as the sole aim of human existence. And those who do not conform are pushed aside.
“It is extremely dispiriting to realize that you are in effect lying to these kids by insinuating that this diet of corporate reading programs and standardized tests are preparing them for anything,” said this teacher, who feared he would suffer reprisals from school administrators if they knew he was speaking out. “It is even more dispiriting to know that your livelihood depends increasingly on maintaining this lie. You have to ask yourself why are hedge fund managers suddenly so interested in the education of the urban poor? The main purpose of the testing craze is not to grade the students but to grade the teacher.”
“I cannot say for certain—not with the certainty of a Bill Gates or a Mike Bloomberg who pontificate with utter certainty over a field in which they know absolutely nothing—but more and more I suspect that a major goal of the reform campaign is to make the work of a teacher so degrading and insulting that the dignified and the truly educated teachers will simply leave while they still retain a modicum of self-respect,” he added. “In less than a decade we been stripped of autonomy and are increasingly micromanaged. Students have been given the power to fire us by failing their tests. Teachers have been likened to pigs at a trough and blamed for the economic collapse of the United States. In New York, principals have been given every incentive, both financial and in terms of control, to replace experienced teachers with 22-year-old untenured rookies. They cost less. They know nothing. They are malleable and they are vulnerable to termination.”
The demonizing of teachers is another public relations feint, a way for corporations to deflect attention from the theft of some $17 billion in wages, savings and earnings among American workers and a landscape where one in six workers is without employment. The speculators on Wall Street looted the U.S. Treasury. They stymied any kind of regulation. They have avoided criminal charges. They are stripping basic social services. And now they are demanding to run our schools and universities.
“Not only have the reformers removed poverty as a factor, they’ve removed students’ aptitude and motivation as factors,” said this teacher, who is in a teachers union. “They seem to believe that students are something like plants where you just add water and place them in the sun of your teaching and everything blooms. This is a fantasy that insults both student and teacher. The reformers have come up with a variety of insidious schemes pushed as steps to professionalize the profession of teaching. As they are all businessmen who know nothing of the field, it goes without saying that you do not do this by giving teachers autonomy and respect. They use merit pay in which teachers whose students do well on bubble tests will receive more money and teachers whose students do not do so well on bubble tests will receive less money. Of course, the only way this could conceivably be fair is to have an identical group of students in each class—an impossibility. The real purposes of merit pay are to divide teachers against themselves as they scramble for the brighter and more motivated students and to further institutionalize the idiot notion of standardized tests. There is a certain diabolical intelligence at work in both of these.”
“If the Bloomberg administration can be said to have succeeded in anything,” he said, “they have succeeded in turning schools into stress factories where teachers are running around wondering if it’s possible to please their principals and if their school will be open a year from now, if their union will still be there to offer some kind of protection, if they will still have jobs next year. This is not how you run a school system. It’s how you destroy one. The reformers and their friends in the media have created a Manichean world of bad teachers and effective teachers. In this alternative universe there are no other factors. Or, all other factors—poverty, depraved parents, mental illness and malnutrition—are all excuses of the Bad Teacher that can be overcome by hard work and the Effective Teacher.”
The truly educated become conscious. They become self-aware. They do not lie to themselves. They do not pretend that fraud is moral or that corporate greed is good. They do not claim that the demands of the marketplace can morally justify the hunger of children or denial of medical care to the sick. They do not throw 6 million families from their homes as the cost of doing business. Thought is a dialogue with one’s inner self. Those who think ask questions, questions those in authority do not want asked. They remember who we are, where we come from and where we should go. They remain eternally skeptical and distrustful of power. And they know that this moral independence is the only protection from the radical evil that results from collective unconsciousness. The capacity to think is the only bulwark against any centralized authority that seeks to impose mindless obedience. There is a huge difference, as Socrates understood, between teaching people what to think and teaching them how to think. Those who are endowed with a moral conscience refuse to commit crimes, even those sanctioned by the corporate state, because they do not in the end want to live with criminals—themselves.
“It is better to be at odds with the whole world than, being one, to be at odds with myself,” Socrates said.
Those who can ask the right questions are armed with the capacity to make a moral choice, to defend the good in the face of outside pressure. And this is why the philosopher Immanuel Kant puts the duties we have to ourselves before the duties we have to others. The standard for Kant is not the biblical idea of self-love—love thy neighbor as thyself, do unto others as you would have them do unto you—but self-respect. What brings us meaning and worth as human beings is our ability to stand up and pit ourselves against injustice and the vast, moral indifference of the universe. Once justice perishes, as Kant knew, life loses all meaning. Those who meekly obey laws and rules imposed from the outside—including religious laws—are not moral human beings. The fulfillment of an imposed law is morally neutral. The truly educated make their own wills serve the higher call of justice, empathy and reason. Socrates made the same argument when he said it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong.
“The greatest evil perpetrated,” Hannah Arendt wrote, “is the evil committed by nobodies, that is, by human beings who refuse to be persons.”
As Arendt pointed out, we must trust only those who have this self-awareness. This self-awareness comes only through consciousness. It comes with the ability to look at a crime being committed and say “I can’t.” We must fear, Arendt warned, those whose moral system is built around the flimsy structure of blind obedience. We must fear those who cannot think. Unconscious civilizations become totalitarian wastelands.
“The greatest evildoers are those who don’t remember because they have never given thought to the matter, and, without remembrance, nothing can hold them back,” Arendt writes. “For human beings, thinking of past matters means moving in the dimension of depth, striking roots and thus stabilizing themselves, so as not to be swept away by whatever may occur—the Zeitgeist or History or simple temptation. The greatest evil is not radical, it has no roots, and because it has no roots it has no limitations, it can go to unthinkable extremes and sweep over the whole world.”
A new PPP survey of Vermont found that Sen. Bernie Sanders one of the nation’s most left leaning senators is so well liked at home that he is the nation’s third most popular senator.
Sen. Sanders has an approval rating of 67% in Vermont, with only 28% of those polled disapproving of him. Sanders will be facing his first reelection campaign next year, and no matter whom he is matched up against he gets at least 56% of the vote. The closest any potential opponent comes to Sanders is Jim Douglas, and he trails the Senator, 56%-38%.
The real takeaway nugget from the poll is this,
Of his colleagues on which PPP has polled, the only ones who can claim to be more beloved are Hawaii’s Daniel Inouye and Wyoming’s John Barrasso, but they serve states with much more overwhelming partisan registration advantages. An independent who caucuses with the Democrats, Sanders’ unabashed democratic socialist views have nevertheless served him well with independent voters, 68% of whom like the work he has done for them. Democrats are unanimously behind him, 93-5, and even a quarter of the state’s more moderate Republicans give him good marks.”
As Bill Maher pointed out last week even conservative Americans love their socialism,
Americans don’t want less spending on healthcare, by almost 2 to 1 they want more. Only 7% of Americans are willing to do away with either Social Security or Medicare, and even 62% of tea party members say those programs are worth the cost, yet 91% say they want smaller government with fewer services. They’re like the guy whose been to prison and says sure I gargle with a guy’s balls once in a while, and there’s nothing I love more than ass play with other men, but no I can’t stand fags.
Remember this guy, the keep your government hands off my Medicare guy? He’s not alone. In one survey, 40% of people who get Medicare say that they have not used a government program. Really? Who do you think paid that hip replacement, your secret Santa? The actor and not very bright person Craig T. Nelson once said about hitting some rough spots in his life that, “I’ve been on welfare and food stamps, but anybody help me out? No.”
Medicare and Social Security are broadly supported across all areas of the political spectrum. In fact, it has been estimated that 92% of Americans have some element of their economic beliefs that leans towards socialism.
Ask yourself this question, if Bernie Sanders is one of the most popular members of the Senate, why have our policy discussions been moving further to the right?
Sen. Sanders’ success is evidence that while America as a country isn’t socialistic, the elements of socialism that we do have in our current system are very, very popular. Democrats need not fear going more to the left on these issues, because the public is behind them.
There is a reason why a new National Journal poll released today found that 79% of those asked said that it is time for new people in Congress. This Congress, Republicans and some Democrats don’t represent the will of the people on entitlements. Sen. Sanders is closer in position to where the American people are on Medicare and Social Security.
It is important to note that the top three most popular senators all come from small states. Sanders’ success does not mean that he should challenge President Obama in a primary, which won’t happen anyway because Sanders isn’t a Democrat, or that Democrats should run candidates who embody more of a hard left ideology across the country. (This strategy would be doomed to failure as large parts of the country will never elect someone with hard left positions).
Washington has joined many Americans who are also living in denial about the nation’s love affair with socialism, but the most certain path to a huge congressional overturn in 2012 is if the GOP lead attacks on entitlements continue.
In wake of the debt ceiling fiasco two things have become very clear. Voters have been embarrassed by the spectacle that they were forced to endure, and Washington is only angering voters more by messing with entitlements.
The American people have one clear message for Congress, leave our socialism alone.
Dear politicians, Reaganomics doesn’t work. All it seems to do is perpetuate class privilege.
“By emphasizing the influence of family background, the studies not only challenge American identity but speak to the debate about inequality. Wile liberals often complain that the United States has unusually large income gaps, many conservatives have argued that the system is fair because mobility is especially high, too: everyone can climb the ladder. Now the evidence suggests that America is not only less equal, but also less mobile.”
“The United States is also less unionized than many of its peers, which may lower wages among the least skilled, and has public health problems, like obesity and diabetes, which can limit education and employment.”
Labor law reform, universal healthcare, and path to socialist democracy needed.