Garment industry

Definition: Industry encompassing all aspects of clothing manufacturing

Significance: Fueled by immigrant labor since the massive surge of Jewish and Italian immigrants to New York City during the decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century, the American garment industry was long a major economic portal to recently arrived immigrants. It was especially important to Jews from the Russian Empire, Italians from the south of their native land, Chinese, Latin Americans, and Southeast Asians. The industry has provided immigrants with jobs, entries into their new culture, and business opportunities.

Before the massive migration of the early twentieth century, most wholesale garments were made in workshops owned by German Jews of earlier immigrations. The Jews who arrived during the early twentieth century already had a long history of garment work in their native countries, largely because Jews observed religious restrictions on certain materials in their clothes, so they preferred to make their own garments. The influx of poor Russian Jews to the United States happened to coincide with a surging American demand for factorymade clothes, and new production systems were emerging. Small contractors rented workshops within the New York tenements in which the immigrants lived. These contractors, most ofwhomwere themselves Russian Jewish immigrants, had more success than large manufacturers in recruiting labor, as the workers whom they recruited were usually fromtheir own Russian hometowns. Job opportunities for these immigrants were often limited by language difficulties and economic necessity, and the Russian contractors could push their laborers to greater efforts of productivity than large manufacturers. This tendency to use small workshops for small-scale contracting long remained a feature of the garment industry.

Early Labor Organization

In 1900, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) was organized at a conference of New York City East Side delegates and representatives of the American Federation of Labor. Their goal was to improve the wages and working conditions of the city’s thousand of garment workers, most of whom were young female immigrants. In 1909, the new union called a strike against the more than five hundred shirtwaist manufacturers in New York. Settlement of the strike in early 1910 significantly improved working conditions but did not attain the recognition of the union that the ILGWU had demanded. Nevertheless, membership in the local union had grown to ten thousand members, and many immigrants had achieved a new sense of dignity and confidence on the picket lines. The settlement did not, however, improve conditions at all garment-making facilities. In March, 1911, 146 mostly immigrant workers were killed in a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. The tragedy did, however, have the beneficial effect of attracting public and government attention to the dangerous conditions in many garment workplaces.

Meanwhile, the New York garment industry remained robust. It expanded during the 1920’s, but by the 1930’s other cities in the United States were attracting sizable concentrations of garment manufacturers. By the 1940’s, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Baltimore had become important garment centers. In 1941, only 39 percent of all American clothing manufacturers were located in New York City. A decade later, the South and then the Far West became productive centers of industry growth. By then, the importation of foreignmade clothing was rapidly increasing in the United States. Initially, Japan and Hong Kong were the only important supplies of clothes to the United States. Eventually, however, virtually every country throughout the world with a developed garment industry found a share of the U.S. market. Due to higher labor and capital costs at home, U.S. manufacturers found it difficult to compete, and the industry shrank.

Garment factory in Jersey Homesteads
Garment factory in Jersey Homesteads (now Roosevelt), New Jersey, in 1936. (Library of Congress)

Renewal of the Garment Industry

Although Russian Jews and Italians had dominated the garment industry in New York since 1914, many immigrants wanted something better for their children and dissuaded them from pursing similar employment. Their withdrawal from the industry opened opportunities to other groups of immigrants, such as Puerto Ricans and Africans. Between 1930 and 1936, about 30 percent of gainfully employed Puerto Rican workers in the United States were either garment or hand-sewing workers. However, most of them worked at home until the 1940’s and early 1950’s, when they began to enter the garment workshops in great numbers.

Despite the differences in when they arrived, the reasons for their immigration, their prior experiences, and their different cultures, African and Puerto Rican women workers had experiences in the garment industry similar to those of their Jewish and Italian predecessors. The Puerto Rican and African women were generally relegated to the lowest- paid unskilled and semiskilled jobs in the industry. However, they earned even lower pay than their Jewish and Italian counterparts who had done the same jobs. The period during which African and Puerto Rican workers entered New York City’s garment industry was an important factor in causing this disparity, as New York’s garment industry was already on its way from being one of the highestpaid industries to becoming one of the lowest paid.

In 1969, New York City’s economy had a sudden downturn and vacancy rates in industrial buildings soared. In the Lower Manhattan district bordering New York’s Chinatown, rents dropped dramatically and many Chinese entrepreneurs started their own garment factories. As their Jewish and Italian predecessors had done, the Chinese organized ethnic business associations. However, they started from a stronger base, drawing on greater collective resources. Chinese owners fromHongKong recruited other immigrants from Hong Kong, while new immigrants from mainland China tended to hire immigrants from the mainland.

The tremendous number of Asian and Latin American immigrants to theWest Coast during the 1970’s and 1980’s created a boom in Los Angeles’s garment trades. Immigrants from Southeast Asia, El Salvador, and Guatemala found opportunities for work in the city’s garment workshops, and ethnic networking assured immigrant owners of a certain reservoir of trust and dependability. Garments made in Los Angeles took their place among those made in New York, and the rise of the garment industry allowed West Coast clothing designers who were once obscure to become nationally, and even internationally, known.

Decline of the Garment Industry

The North American Free Trade Agreement is a trilateral trade pact created by the leaders of Mexico, Canada, and the United States that went into effect in 1993. One of the most powerful and widereaching international treaties in the world, it reduced trade and investment barriers among the three North American nations through a gradual and methodical process. Its goal was to reduce tariffs among Mexico, Canada, and the United Sates over a period of years, making it easier to trade goods across national borders. Maquiladoros, or small Mexican factories, sprang up along the border on the Mexican side, and many jobs from the American garment industry were lost to these factories. Especially disturbing to the workers was the fact that their jobs were exported partly to take advantage of low wages and environmental standards.

Another blow to the garment industry was the World Trade Organization, which defines the rules of trade among nations at a near-global level. Created in early 1995, it had 153 nation members that account for more than 95 percent of the world’s trade. The stated aim of the organization was to promote free trade and stimulate economic growth, but American labor unions condemned the laborrights records of developing countries. They claimed that the more the World Trade Organization promoted globalization, the more labor rights would suffer. After China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, it would eventually double its exports to the United States. China had a strong competitive edge in clothing manufacture because of its government’s exploitation of the millions of rural Chinese who migrated to China’s cities in search of work—much like Europeans had flocked to the United States a century earlier.

Illegal Immigration and the Garment Industry

During the last decades of the twentieth century, more and more illegal immigrants were arriving in the United States by clandestinely crossing the U.S. border with Mexico. Mexican agricultural workers had long crossed the border to work in seasonal American farming industries, but most had returned home when their harvesting work was finished. In contrast, many workers from Mexico and Central American nations were entering the United States illegally in the hope of finding steady, permanent jobs that would permit them to stay. Many of these people found steady jobs in the Los Angeles garment industry.

The problem of illegal immigrants became a topic of public discussion, and attempts were made by the federal government to improve border security. However, many U.S. employers were becoming dependent on undocumented workers, who were willing to work for lower pay than American workers. In August of 2007, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced a controversial new immigration enforcement policy. It issued a “No-Match” regulation intended to help employees ensure that their workers are legal, and to help the government identify and crack down on employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants. This new policy caused a great deal of consternation within Los Angeles’s multibillion-dollar garment industry. Some manufacturers threatened to move their operations offshore.

In October of 2007, a U.S. district court judge issued a preliminary injunction that prevented the Department of Homeland Security from carrying out its new policy. The judge who ruled in the case of AFL-CIO v. Chertoff accepted the plaintiffs’ argument that such a rule would cause thousands of employers to bear significant expenses and would likely lead to unfair terminations of many workers because of errors in the Social Security database that was to be used to identify undocumented immigrants.

In late 2008, when the United States was entering into a severe recession and Congress was debating the implementation of a massive economic stimulus package, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill with a provision to ensure that new jobs go to Americans and not to illegal immigrants.

Sheila Golburgh Johnson

Further Reading

  • Bacon, David. Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants. Boston: Beacon Books, 2008. Shows the human side of globalization, exposing the way it uproots people in Latin America and Asia, driving them to emigrate. 
  • Gordon, Jennifer. Suburban Sweatshops: The Fight for Immigrant Rights. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2005. A record of the Workplace Project founded by the author in 1992 to help immigrant workers in the underground suburban economy of Long Island, New York. This book discusses new possibilities for labor organizing, community building, and participatory democracy. 
  • Green, Nancy L. Immigrants: Ready-to-Wear and Ready-to-Work—A Century of Industry and Immigrants in Paris and New York. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997. Compelling comparative study of the garment industries in France and the United States that analyzes the garment industry from the point of economic, social, cultural, political, and gender history. 
  • Louie, Miriam Ching Yoon. Sweatshop Warriors: Immigrant Women Workers Take on the Global Factory. Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 2001. Examination of transnational sweatshops through the eyes of Korean, Chinese, and Mexican women forced to leave their homelands to take exploitative labor jobs in the world’s sweatshops. 
  • Woloch, Nancy, ed. Early American Women: A Documentary History, 1700-1900. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1992. Collection of more than seventy-five primary sources, almost all written by women. Each chapter begins with a generic history. 

See also: Asian immigrants; Captive Thai workers; Chinese family associations; Family businesses; International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union; Jewish immigrants; New York City; Sweatshops; Triangle Shirtwaist fire; Women immigrants.

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