AFL-CIO Finds Sweatshops Fertile Soil for New Members

One story highlights benefits to immigrants from unions

FIFTEEN years ago, Deng Ying-yee left the crumbling tenements and bullying officials in Guangzhou, China, for a New York metropolis that, from afar, offered a prosperous life and greater justice.

Mrs. Deng settled with her family in the Chinese-speaking Brooklyn neighborhood of Sunset Park. Unable to speak English, she could only find a job in one of the area's small garment workshops. It certainly did not fulfill her dream.

''I didn't think America would be like this for me,'' Deng said in her native Cantonese: ''I have cried many, many times.''

But several months ago Deng decided to fight back. She started to bring a trade union into her workplace, joining a campaign by the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) to turn sweatshops into workplaces with decent pay and conditions.

UNITE sees the recent return of sweatshops to New York as an opportunity to muster new members. Similarly, the AFL-CIO sees the decline in real wages and job security for hourly workers across the nation as fueling resentment that will reverse a steady decline in union membership.

Since 1980, Deng has worked in a string of shops and seen her pay and conditions steadily worsen. Bosses have routinely given her partial pay, she says. They have demanded that she work 12 hours a day, six days a week, and denied her overtime, health benefits, and holidays. Also, she adds, they have exacted a wage ''tax'' as high as 10 percent.

One boss packed up his machinery late one night after work and fled an obligation to thousands of dollars in back pay to her and fellow workers, she recalls.

That swindle is common in garment sweatshops. In New York alone, half of the city's 100,000 garment workers are employed in more than 3,000 shops that defy wage and safety laws, UNITE officials say.

Deng joined hundreds of black, Asian, and Hispanic garment workers and union activists from the AFL-CIO in a march last Thursday through the city's garment district.

The leader of the march, newly elected federation president John Sweeney, seemed carried along by a human river that swept down Seventh Avenue, roiling with diverse currents of ethnicity and race. Shouting ''No More Sweatshops!'' the demonstrators flowed through the grimy streets of the district.

''We will stop greedy corporations from turning America into a sweatshop,'' Mr. Sweeney said in a rally capping the federation's national convention.

United States Labor Secretary Robert Reich took up the refrain: ''There is simply no room in America for businesses that treat their workers like animals.''

Deng and New York's other needle trade workers represent one of the nation's oldest and most powerful labor movements. Many in the vast and diverse communities of New York immigrants past and present say they could tell tales of business chicanery that sound similar to Deng's saga. ''New York's garment unions have rescued thousands and thousands of workers from abject poverty and given them a basis for a decent standard of living,'' says Steve Fraser, author of ''Labor Will Rule.''

Some economists criticize unions for distorting wages and curtailing job growth. But UNITE sees itself as offering Deng and other garment workers more than the hope of fair pay, a safe workplace, and a stepping stone to the middle class. Through the union, she can take courses in English and US citizenship, and find cheap legal advice.

Indeed, because of the high percentage of immigrant labor, New York unions have long been a vital force for melding foreign-born workers into American society. The membership rolls for two unions that in July merged to form UNITE read like an Ellis Island log book: largely Eastern Europeans and Italians from the 1890s until World War II; Puerto Ricans in the 1950s and 1960s; and Caribbeans, South Americans, and East Asians since then.

''New York City government has definitely been very, very accommodating to labor,'' says Josh Freeman, associate professor of history at Columbia University. ''It ebbs and flows depending on who is the mayor, but within a range that most Americans would say is absurdly pro-union.''

TODAY, Deng and other garment unionists confront the same difficulties troubling other US labor organizations. There is the corporate shift of jobs to cheap foreign labor, a Republican-run Congress devoted to legislation that labor views as hostile, and a cool popular attitude toward unions. The proportion of US voters who view unions favorably has shrunk from 76 percent in 1936 to 41 percent today, according to polls cited in The Public Perspective.

But labor leaders find hope in the bad news.

''After many, many years of passivity, there is a sense that the labor movement will become a force attracting people who resent the growing social and economic inequalities in our society,'' says Mr. Fraser, an executive editor at Houghton Mifflin.

Should unions continue to decay, Deng's family is clasping another upward ladder. With a grin and quick toss of her head she says, ''I have two children in college!''

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